As part of my Search for American Values project, this informal paper sets forth a framework for viewing how values are defined and promoted by society, groups, organizations, and individuals.
As I started the project I immediately ran into the issue that there is not one, single, unified, universal set of values shared by every single individual in this country. There are lots of groups and divisions in this country, not to mention the fact that every individual has the right to define their own personal values as well as interpretations of shared values.
This paper will not delve into specific groups or specific differences in values, but focus on developing a framework for discussing the nature of the distinctions and divides in values.
A subsequent paper will detail values of various groups and notable individuals, especially historic figures.
We are not a we
It has been becoming increasingly obvious in recent decades and years that the people of America are not a single, homogenous people. We are not a we. There are a variety of divides and they only seem to be getting wider and more numerous.
The result is that the set of universal or widely shared values is shrinking.
The good news is that there may be at least some stability in sets of values that are shared by significant minorities of the populace.
We may not be one we, but maybe we are six, a dozen, or two dozen we’s, depending on how closely you wish to examine similarities and differences.
As a result, there is not a single set of collective values shared by all, but multiple sets of collective values.
When someone says “we”, my first question is which we?
My concern is always that they actually do mean all of us, the entire nation, as if we really were a single we and they were the self-appointed spokesperson for the entire nation, marginalizing the values of anyone who has values outside of the specific group to which the speaker belongs.
Granted, national leaders are in theory authorized to speak for all of us. That’s okay, but too often they resort to speaking of the values of their own party’s ideology rather than attempting to reflect the totality of the beliefs of all citizens, even those with radically different points of view and values.
Similarly, elected officials at sub-national levels and elected representatives at all levels frequently refer to “we”, leaving it ambiguous as to whether they are referring to everyone or only their constituents, and whether they really are intending to disparage the values of those who didn’t vote for them.
The values we stand for
Public figures frequently refer to “the values we stand for”, but fail to:
- List those values. Ever.
- Acknowledge that we are not a single we and each of our we’s has its own distinctive set of values.
When it comes to we-ness, Americans are very passionate about pluralism.
That’s the key point of this series of papers, to explore American values, collectively for all Americans and collectively for each of the distinct we’s of our United We’s.
Yet another common reference by public figures is to “our values.” What are our values? Well, they’re… “the values we stand for.” Not a lot of specificity is ever forthcoming.
When some refers to “our” anything, my first question is once again always which we?
Individual and collective values
Values can be split into two realms:
- Individual values. What an individual considers or should consider important.
- Collective values. What society as a whole or some group in society considers or should consider important, collectively or consensually, as opposed to individually.
But even that is not a clean divide.
We really have two vantage points on values for each of those two realms:
- Individual views on both individual and collective values.
- Collective, consensus views on both individual and collective values.
Or to expand that:
- Each individual’s view on individual values.
- Each individual’s view on collective values.
- Collective, consensus views on individual values in general.
- Collective, consensus views on collective values.
This paper will not delve into specific individual or collective values, but focus on where the divides are.
There are a range of forms of collective values:
- Global, universal, not limited to U.S.
- Modern western-style democracies, primarily derivative of European culture.
- Society as a whole, the people.
- Nation, as a political entity.
- Political parties.
- Wings of political parties
- Political ideologies.
- Political factions.
- Religious denominations, sects, or cults.
- Ethnic and demographic groups.
- Generations and age groups.
- Social media.
Organization categories include:
- Business, large and small, domestic, multinational, and foreign.
- Nonprofit organizations.
- Religious affiliated organizations.
- Civil society.
- Foundations and philanthropies (broader mission than individual nonprofits.)
For any given group or organization, there are three sets of values:
- Strictly within the bounds of the group or organization. Between staff, management, and executives.
- Focused on interactions with those closely affiliated with the group or organization but still outside of it. Customers, clients, users, members, vendors, suppliers, contract workers.
- Directed outside the group or organization and those closely affiliated with it. Citizens in general, communities, anyone impacted by the work or efforts of the group or organization.
There may be a lot of commonality between those three sets of values for a given group or organization, but commonly there will tend to be significant differences.
Inside vs. outside of groups and organizations
Granted, some organizations or groups may treat members and non-members exactly the same in terms of values, but there tend to be categorical differences in internal vs. external values from a practical, organizational, and functional perspective.
Internal group or organization values
Groups and organizations tend to have some sort of hierarchy, such as:
- Senior executive leadership.
- Other executives.
- Senior managers.
- Mid-level managers.
- Low-level managers.
- Team leaders.
Organized social groups will have a similar, formal structure.
Informal social groups, ethnic groups, and society as a whole will have a variety of informal power relationships, even if only informal pecking orders.
In addition to values that apply across the board to all members of a group, each level of any structure will have values that relate to:
- Within the level, to one’s peers.
- To leaders.
- To subordinates.
External group or organization values
Regardless of values within any group or organization, there may be a distinction between how members are treated and how everyone outside of the group is treated.
There may be distinctions in external group values relative to:
- Individuals or other groups or organizations who have a strong relationship with the group, such as customers and clients. These may or may not be contractual and legally binding.
- Individuals or other groups or organizations who have a loose, casual relationship with the group or organization, such as customers without any formal contractual relationship.
- Individuals or other groups or organizations in general, including visitors and guests.
- Individuals or other groups or organizations who have no interaction with the group per se, but who might be impacted by the group or with whom the group might establish a relationship in the future.
- Citizens in general.
- Communities, who may be impacted in some way by the group or organization.
- Neighborhoods, who may be impacted in some way by the group or organization.
- Society as a whole, of whom the group or organization is a part
Government has a twin role, both as an organization and to the people whom it serves.
The distinction between any other social organization and government is that external group values — to the people — are more primal and central.
External values of government relate to:
- Citizens in general.
- Groups and organizations.
- Other governments.
- Citizens of other political entities.
- Guests and visitors, whether they be tourists, business people, students, or immigrants.
There is also the issue of levels of government and relations between those levels:
There may be distinctions in values relative to:
- Big businesses. Some people really, really hate them and all that they stand for.
- Multinational businesses.
- Medium-sized businesses. Especially regional orientation.
- Small businesses. Especially local orientation.
Nonprofits, including NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) focus on either:
- Service orientation. Their reason for existence is to serve specific segments of society, such as the poor, the sick, others in some way underserved, or specific target segments of society.
- Activism. They serve their members and donors, seeking social, economic, or political change.
Foundations and philanthropies
While nonprofits focus on specific missions and directly delivering services to targeted needs, foundations and philanthropies have much broader agendas.
While money flows from foundations and philanthropies to grantees such as nonprofit groups who then deliver services, the values of the the foundations and philanthropies are determined by a combination of the staff, the board, and the donors who fund them.
Grantees may in fact be selected based on alignment of their values with the values of the foundation or philanthropy, but alignment is rarely perfect. All that is needed is sufficient alignment to attract the attention of the foundation or philanthropy.
Political parties are famous for not only having differences in values, but exploiting those differences to attract voters.
It is an interesting question, which comes first:
- Parties promote values and voters adopt them.
- Voters have values and parties adopt them.
It’s probably a mix of both.
A political party is born or formed at some stage and will have the shared values of its founders, although moderated in such a way as to appeal to a targeted base of voters.
Leadership and membership in parties will evolve over time, and values with them, or maybe the existing values endure and shape who will lead and join the parties. Or a mix or alternation of both.
Wings of political parties
The various wings of political parties frequently have differences in values, with some values taking on greater importance and others losing importance.
Alternatively, the values may be identical, and it is only a matter of nuance, priority, emphasis, and policies for upholding those values.
National values can get murky due to a number of factors:
- Strong shared values at the time of the founding of the nation, held, expressed, and shared with great passion, at least for awhile.
- Divergence of regional values.
- Divergence of ethnic groups.
- Divergence of religions, denominations, and sects.
- Development, evolution, and divergence of political parties and wings of parties.
- Development, evolution, and divergence of strong media.
- Development, evolution, and divergence of activism.
- Technological change which impacts needs, interests, and abilities.
- Evolution and divergence of social ideologies and policies.
- Immigration, introducing divergence in values.
- Expansion and evolution of education and transmission and reinforcement of values and divergence in values.
- Evolution and divergence in attitudes towards the roles of the individual and government, between individualism and collective action.
- Evolution and divergence in attitudes towards the role of business, between the public and private sectors.
- Evolution and divergence in attitudes towards the role of civil society.
- Evolution and divergence of civil society itself.
- Evolution and divergence in attitudes towards the role of religion.
- Evolution and divergence of religion itself.
- Evolution and divergence in interpretations and priorities of particular values.
- Evolution and divergence of moral and ethical frameworks.
- Advancement and diffusion of knowledge and beliefs.
- Expansion of national boundaries.
A nation will end up with multiple sets of overlapping values and layers of interpretations and priorities of values.
One could rate a value as a national value using various criteria, such as whether the value is shared by:
- Everyone — the value is truly universal.
- The vast majority of the nation, like 90–95%.
- A supermajority of the nation, like 67%.
- A reasonable majority of the nation, like 55–60%.
- A bare simple majority of the nation, like 50.1%.
- A near simple majority of the nation, like 49.9%.
- A significant portion of the nation, like 40%.
- A significant minority of the nation, like 20–35%.
- A nontrivial minority of the nation, like 10–15%.
- A bare minority of the nation, like 5%.
- A small fringe minority of the nation, like 2% or less.
- G.I. — Born 1901–1924.
- Silent — Born 1925–1942.
- Boom (Baby Boomers) — Born 1943–1960.
- Generation X — Born 1961–1981.
- Millennial — Born 1982–2004.
- Homelanders — Born 2005–2025.
Each generation tends to have its own variations, priorities, and interpretations of the values of their parents, grandparents, community, social group, and the nation as a whole, while many core values remain relatively unchanged for reasonably extended periods of time.
The family is really the first place that individuals, children, get their first taste of values. The influences in the family include:
- Aunts and uncles
Religion, school, friends, neighborhood, and community are the next big exposures to values for individuals.
Neighborhoods are a significant source for promoting and reinforcing values.
Friends and neighbors are a significant influence on values for children and adults alike.
Friends can have a significant effect on promoting and reinforcing values, with several modes of transmission:
- Promote values to friends.
- Adopt values from friends.
- Select friends based on shared values.
- Abandon friends based on value conflicts.
Each community tends to have its own variations, priorities, and interpretations of values that would otherwise be shared with all other communities of the nation and its region.
Schools are a major opportunity to influence the values of young people, although religion, community, and the neighborhood are competing with schools for promotion and reinforcement of values.
Each region of the country tends to have its own variations, priorities, and interpretations of values that would otherwise be shared with all other regions of the nation.
Communities within a region will tend to have a lot more in common with other communities in the region than with communities in other regions, with plenty of exceptions of course.
The Internet or the World Wide Web in particular has opened up a whole new dimension for sharing, promoting, reinforcing, discussing, and fighting over values.
Whole communities can form online. The proverbial discussion forums.
Groups and subgroups are common.
Beyond the relatively sedate pace of typical online Internet communities, social media has opened up multiple whole new dimensions of interaction that can involve values, frequently at a near-instantaneous pace.
People can come together informally or even interact intensely over relatively long periods of time without necessarily establishing anything resembling a formal group or organization.
Clashes of values are common and even quite epic in proportions.
The point of this informal paper was not to detail specific values or specific groups, but develop a basic model for how to explore the distinctions and divides that result in divergences in values.
A previous paper provided a Master List of Values in America. Just about every imaginable value held by any American is on that list. It is complete in that sense, but it doesn’t tell you who or what group actually holds each value or how they interpret even shared values. I don’t expect to get to that level of excruciating detail, but I do expect to at least summarize the major values of the major groups, notable minority groups, and notable individuals, especially historical figures in forthcoming papers.