The Politics of Broken Values and Warped Perspectives

Our perspective forms our values, our values shape our perspective, and if both go wrong, out politics turns toxic.

It can be difficult to get a handle on just how bad our contemporary political environment has become and, more so, why. Everything just feels broken and so much of it driven not by a clash of philosophies, but instead by the rise and celebration of profoundly ugly values.

But it’s not just about ugly values. Yes, there are people out there who openly relish and venerate the worst behaviors and beliefs, and do so out of a self-conscious commitment to being the kind of person most of us, rightly, find unlikeable: Internet trolls, edgelords, dull comedians, duller fringe media figures, etc. We all know someone who hates the world and wants the world to hate them right back.

It’s tempting to view everyone who’s given into the ugliness as falling into that camp. To believe they know exactly what they’ve become, and what they’re demanding the country become along with them. But that’s a mistake. Most of them, if you ask, won’t readily admit the badness of their values, not like the trolls, edgelords, comedians, and fringe media figures will. Instead, they’ll genuinely view themselves as good and upstanding. Maybe a bit flawed, too, but who isn’t? Still, what’s worse, they’ll say, is what everyone else has become. Any ugliness they embrace in the political sphere is just a necessary feature of the kind of person or policy needed to push back on this cultural corruption, this drift away from how things used to be, back when the country had traditional values and not whatever it is we have today.

While I think it’s clear that quite a lot of those “traditional” values were themselves corrupt, and that social progress has come from abandoning them and the domination and hierarchies they insisted upon and reinforced, it’s important to note that it doesn’t feel that way to the people who hold fast to them. To understand how there can be that disconnect–how bad values can seem to the holder like good values–we need to introduce the idea of wholesome and unwholesome perspectives.

A perspective is how you see and make sense of the world and your place in it, and that seeing and making sense of isn’t just a product of the information you take in, but the attitudes and preferences, conscious or unconscious, you apply in working out the meaning of, and your response to, that information. If you are disposed to fearfulness, for example, then behaviors you see others engaging in will appear to you more threatening and worrying than if you are disposed to a more comfortable and contented perspective. And this can then lead you to lash out at harmless difference and benign change, and make you more susceptible to political leaders promising to use their authority to put a stop to it.

We can’t fully separate values and perspective, because they each form the other. The values you bring to understanding yourself and your world will inform what you find relevant, worthy of emphasis, or worthy of concern when you’re processing the environment around you–or what you’re hearing about that environment from television, politicians, and so on. At the same time, the perspective through which you view the world and yourself will lead you into habits of thought and behavior that dissolve, solidify, or shape the values you come to view as worth pursuing, cultivating, maintaining, or abandoning.

In particular, when I look out at the worst features of our political and social culture, the perspective I see dominating is one of aversion and clinging. It’s a perspective that says, “I don’t like this, and need to push it very far away, put a stop to it, or destroy it entirely.” And it’s a perspective that says, “I like this, and so demand that it dominate not just my life, but everyone else’s, and that it never change.” Taken together, these create a broader perspective of illiberalism, of seeing diversity, dynamism, individual choice, and social change not as features of freedom worth celebrating, but as threats to the one true and worthy way of life.

The trouble with this perspective of aversion and clinging isn’t just that it encourages you to behave badly towards people different from you, and to want to take away their freedom to live that difference in a peaceful way, but also that it leads to misery for yourself. It might feel like aversion and clinging are actually just the holding fast to old sources of wisdom and tried and true social arrangements and status rankings. But, as I’ve argued at length in another essay, they demand of the world what it cannot give. This perspective insists upon stasis, when everything is constantly in a state of change. And that disconnect between the way so many want the world to be and the way the world actually, inevitably, is then just creates needless suffering for the person unwilling to give up their aversion and clinging, and trapped in the ignorance of believing they can keep them while somehow achieving happiness.

Fortunately, we can change our perspective, and we can cultivate better values. It’s challenging. But if we are to live together and flourish, we have no choice.

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