“Your time is way too valuable to be wasting on people that can’t accept who you are.” ― Turcois Ominek from her book “Masquerade”
The incessant sermons on values made me risk writing this article. Political, social & business leaders, TV anchors, columnists and activists of all ilk tell us about how they are the upholders of values and those they badger are eroding values.
Let us pause and ask the basic question: What are values? I doubt if many of us do this reflection before we hold forth on its virtues or lament its decline. In very simple construct, values are strongly held beliefs. Values are complex mix of all the beliefs that we accept as universal and those that are specific to certain religion, ethnicity, nationality and social groups.
All beliefs are initially shaped by influential people whose intent and judgment we implicitly trust, scriptures which we accept as unquestionable and social norms as determined by powerful people/groups/institutions as non-negotiable. The primary social function of beliefs is to provide identity and distinctiveness to us and the communities we belong to. This helps us to norm thought and behavior in the conduct of our life and in the interactions amongst members of a community. It brings order to the community. It makes interactions within the community largely credible, reliable and predictable. Beliefs and therefore values were the early civilizing force. It helped each community to differentiate itself from the others. Distinctiveness is an overpowering human need. Humans are not satisfied in being only physically distinctive from others. We have for 10,000 years sought to be distinctive in our thinking, which defines who we are, how we live and interact with each other. Paradoxically while we seek distinctiveness for ourselves individually and as a community, we simultaneously seek sameness and uniformity for everyone around us. Values help to reconcile this paradox.
Ethnicity and religion were the distinctive identities we invented much before nationality. Both these managed to resolve the paradox of coexistence of distinctiveness and conformity. Ethnicity emerged from our language. Religion emerged from our search for who we are, where we come from, why we are here and why we are what we are. Both these are thought processes at a very high conceptual level. The early masters who could rise above the crowd and shape this thinking, not only for themselves but also for their communities, had very few with equal capability to challenge them. Even when there was a challenge the victor determined which ‘Thought – Belief’ prevailed and which got extinguished. The loser was exterminated or excommunicated from the community, in order to prevent any alternate values defining power center.
Our collective unconscious learnt the dangers of challenging well-entrenched beliefs as articulated by powerful people – religious and in later years’ socio-political leaders. Is it therefore any wonder that right up to today, the only people who can hold forth on values, to all other unwise commoners are powerful people: religious, socio-political and now business leaders? The rare commoner who wins the debate over the powers that be then gets assimilated into the power pantheon as a messiah or a saint, who now cannot be questioned or challenged. The most powerful sanction for the beliefs was thoughts revealed by the God, privately to this messiah aka Moses or the Vedas (Apurshi – not authored by men; Anadhi – without a beginning in terms of time; divine). To question or challenge the revelation is even more dangerous, because we have been made to believe, the notion of sin and sacrilege; where the punishment is gruesome – Dante made it vivid in his Divine comedy. The astounding bass relief of the tortures in hell at Angkor Wat and many similar vivid portrayals ensured that revelations are never challenged.
If beliefs are not to be challenged, can strongly held beliefs viz values, be ever challenged. Thus almost all of us believe in the absoluteness of values. We refuse to accept that values in its manifestation are often nuanced. Let us examine a few values for the absoluteness or nuancing:
Honesty and integrity are seen by all of us as the mother of all values. If honesty is absolute and not nuanced, do we see that there can be no place for sensitivity and diplomacy? Do we not scorn at absolutely honest people? Do we not lecture to them that they are disruptive and socially maladjusted people? Imagine being absolutely honest with any of the authority figures in the world and its consequences. Honesty apart from being inconvenient in statecraft, running all types of social and commercial institutions, is also a relationship spoiler in social groups and family. Honesty when not nuanced is harsh and hurtful. No commercial enterprise anywhere in the world has been built on the bedrock of absolute honesty, at all times and in all contexts. So when we talk of integrity we actually are nuancing it, grading it and contextualizing it. My definition of honesty very often is not the same as yours!
Protecting & taking care of the weak and vulnerable in the society is another value which all of us cherish. If we once again see this as an absolute value, we will be ideologically aligning with the ideals of Karl Marx. Marxism is not an economic ideology only; its moorings are in the values of equality, social justice and shared responsibility of protecting and taking care of the hard toiling underdog. When we counter pose against this the value of meritocracy, it is capitalism. Should we not ask when does ambition become greed? These dividing lines are drawn on sand and not etched on stone. We now understand that both when absolute become harsh and impractical. Hence the adopters of both these values are now nuancing their positions. A more disturbing question to all of us is our personal disposition towards the weak and the vulnerable, starting at our own home!
Take for instance our acceptance or otherwise of what is a vice and what is not. Ask those who smoke, consume alcohol or have liberal disposition to marriage and man-woman relationship, whether as an individual they view their orientation under the lens of absolute values or nuanced ones? Are they sinners and to which hell do they descend to, while the non-smokers, teetotalers and the monogamist heterosexuals ascend to which heaven?
Interestingly, the monotheistic newer religions moved the discourse on values to dogmatic absolutism. The so called pagan religions or to be more correct the older polytheistic religions were comfortable with the nuanced position on values. I shudder to think that perfectly sane adults believe in the Day of Judgment by the God’s auditor in our after life! If our deeds in the living world are to be dictated by our expectations of fear or rewards in the after world, is it not in itself a sad denouement about our true orientation to values?
We all learn to negotiate our values as we grow into our adulthood. None of us uphold them in its absoluteness ever. Yet we pretend to have not nuanced our values, for fear of disapproval by powerful people and social peers. In my book no two persons ever live out their values in the same manner, though they may profess it to be the same. What & why I value often is different to what someone else does. How could compassion as a value co-exist with eating meat? Yet we know that meat eaters are no less compassionate than the vegetarians. How is it possible for Duryodhana to be faithful to Karna, if he was such a debased person; or for that matter how can we reconcile Ravana the patron of arts and devotee of Shiva, to being the abductor of another man’s wife? Mythologies recognized that we are complex. So to polarize values as noble & ignoble and good & bad is indeed futile. Were the allied forces in the Second World War the saviors of the world or were they the occupying colonists who fought a war not to be colonized by a more powerful aggressor? How did this noble force called Stalinist Russia become an evil one after the war? Did Russia’s human rights violations and pogroms’ against the Jews not disqualify them, to fight alongside the other allies against the satanic Third Reich? What noble values justify the use of atom bombs on innocent civilians at Hiroshima and Nagasaki- places of no military significance? Where and how do we draw the line to determine the good and the bad?
As the Tamil poet Kannadasan said: “When you kill it is sin; but when it is eaten everything is absolved”. The nobility or otherwise of an act is often contextual. A soldier killing a soldier has two sides. If the dead soldier is yours the other soldier is an aggressor but if the soldier who killed is yours he is an upholder of the value of freedom. In the end, values appear noble or otherwise from someone’s point of view. Values are not only nuanced but are relative too.
We all have double standards. The way we live our values and the way we imagine living it; most often the two are at gross variance, even worse is the one we advocate for others to live. This brings us to the question, absolute or nuanced, what is our response when we see someone infringing the values of others? You will find onlookers galore.
It is only when we have the courage & grace to comprehend and stand by someone, whose values differ with ours and help her live by it, we have earned the right to be righteous and to advocate to others what values they should strive to live by. The next time when someone sermonizes to you about the virtues of values; look into his eyes and ask him, when he last stood by someone, who was being attacked for upholding his values. How many of us reflect on a public platform our values conflict, before sermonizing to others about their values degradation? In the end it will serve us well if we pause and reflect from time to time, what are the values we stand for and what consequences are we prepared to accept!
“Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.”
– Mahatma Gandhi
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