Columnists > Voices

Devaluing 'values'

We need a better word for truths that stand independent of any evaluator

Issue: "Upside down," April 9, 2011

When a kindergartner pushes down another kid on the playground, his behavior is deemed "inappropriate." When a fifth-grader steals from a classmate's locker, the word again is "inappropriate." When (as recently happened at Northwestern University) a college professor allows a live sex act to be part of an after-class seminar, his decision is labeled-guess what?-"inappropriate" by the college president. But inappropriate for what?

A high-school student's C average, when he is capable of B's or better, is "unacceptable." A street gang vandalizing a cemetery is likewise "unacceptable." And Muammar Qaddafi strafing his own people from the sky is, according to President Obama, totally "unacceptable." But unacceptable to whom?

Both these words imply standards: circumstantial, relative standards. The Northwestern professor decided that explicit content during a non-required class was pertinent to the subject matter. Qaddafi's methods of putting down rebellion are acceptable to him, and perhaps to other dictators who would do the same if they had the resources. Standards change, right? Yesterday we liked boiled cabbage; today we prefer lightly steamed broccoli. Yesterday alcoholism was a moral failing; today it's a disease. Yesterday, "heterosexual marriage" was redundant; today it's a hot topic of debate. And tomorrow?

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Standards change, but principles don't. Most WORLD readers would agree that there's such a thing as God's law, written on human hearts (Romans 2:15), that does not modify itself to circumstances. Some things really are inappropriate, like wearing muddy boots to a wedding. Some things are unacceptable, like failing a test because you didn't study. And some things are flat-out wrong. It's important to maintain that distinction.

We teach our children about euphemism: padding hard realities with soft-sounding words. We recognize how "pro-choice" cushions "abortion" and "undocumented worker" neutralizes "illegal alien." But there's another form of subversive language we don't spot so easily. Essayist Fred Ikle called it "semantic infiltration": "the process whereby we come to adopt the language of our adversaries in describing political reality." Or any other reality, as when we label behavior as inappropriate when it's actually wrong.

The word values is a case in point. I've used it, as shorthand for traditional-standards-of-morality-derived-from-our-Judeo-Christian-heritage, but was never quite comfortable with it. Value was originally a verb; to "value" is something we do, or attribute. In its noun form it refers to worth, such as the value of a camel or a coin or a political system. Whether noun or verb, value is an inherently relative term: It depends on the evaluator.

Thus, "our values" are what we consider valuable. For Christians to adopt it as an identity, as in the Traditional Values Coalition or the Values Voters Summit, is to step out on shaky ground. The first Summit took place two years after the election of 2004, during which the term "values voter" became a journalistic catchphrase. Christians adopted the label a bit too readily, perhaps as a means of attracting non-Christians to the social-morality standard.

There's nothing wrong with a strategy of inclusion to achieve political ends; the problem is that by opening one hand we give away too much with the other. We imply that our values are what's valuable to us, as opposed to the values our opponents hold dear. This language doesn't just sideline truth; it neutralizes truth.

Harvey Mansfield, writing about The Federalist, notes that our Founding Fathers did not set up a national government according to "values," but according to their understanding of human nature. That understanding turns out to be the view that has allowed the greatest freedom for individuals to determine for themselves what is appropriate, acceptable . . . and valuable.

Notice the distinction: The "values voter" seeks not to define all values for everybody, but rather to defend a handful of basic, non-negotiable principles for maintaining an orderly society. For without order, all values become null and void. It may take a while to come up with better terminology, but the effort is worth making-lest our thinking become as muddled as our words.
Email Janie B. Cheaney

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.


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