Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Our monsters, our values


A flaxen-maned sea creature, two stories tall, has waded ashore in Bournemouth this week.  All I can say is that it wasn’t there on Sunday…

The monster was made personal in the spirit of Richard Branson, put up by Virgin Media as part of a new publicity campaign. It will undoubtedly travel from beach to beach around Britain this summer before, in all likelihood, heading to permanent repose on Necker Island.

It’s also kind of cool: I  hope it stays a couple of days until I get back into town to have a look on Friday.

The  notion of personalized monsters got me thinking about the converse: the sort imagined by WH Auden in The Ascent of F6.  In the play, a group of climbers ascends a haunted mountain, where an embodiment of each person’s hidden flaws kills them, one by one.

The  Guardian stuck a similar theme in an article about how people form their personal values.  The author suggested two principle origins,  one based in history (shifting baseline syndrome: We perceive the circumstances of our youth as normal and unexceptional) and one based in environment (values ratchet: We are shaped by accepted social norms and governmental policies around us).

Nostalgia and environment, together, drop people along a spectrum of value types, ranging from Intrinsic (high levels of self-acceptance, strong bonds of intimacy and a powerful desire to help others) to Extrinsic (Greater need for external validation, seek financial rewards and power, more competitive against others). 

The paper holds that we’re currently in an era dominated by Extrinsic values.  It is both created by the political dominance of conservative policies and feeds back to reinforce them.  Thus DSC06426 (1300x1074) inequality, intolerance, environmental degradation, and social injustice all increase as opposition withers.

Although I’m sympathetic to the Guardian’s conclusion (the world would, indeed be a better place if we were nicer to each other), I think that the argument used to get there is very forced.  In particular, I disagree that personal values are so easily shaped by perceived historical and political norms. 

What, then, does explain the prevalence of Extrinsic personal values, selfishness and intolerance, and the corresponding decline of social cooperation, inclusiveness, and mutual aid?

I think that the key is that people act defensively when they feel threatened: they protect their own interests and dismiss other people's, gravitating towards Extrinsic behaviours.

Personal circumstances such as aging, job loss, weakened relationships, financial or health worries can trigger extrinsic behaviours.  So, more distantly, are perceived dangers of crime, terrorism, deficits, inflation or immigration. 

As can uncertainty and isolation, two snares waiting to trap expats and entrepreneurs.

Success as an expatriate or an entrepreneur requires Intrinsic values: tolerant and cooperative interpersonal and social skills.  Adoption of Extrinsic personal values Branzillaundermines necessary attitudes and relationships.

So, the danger isn’t, as suggested by the Guardian, in the way politics or media foster Extrinsic values, putting human hair onto the monster.  The danger comes from inside each of us, is in how we regard our history and context, keeping our inner Branzilla at bay.

In the words of the Cherokee, it is determined by the wolf we each choose to feed.

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