Finding values

The troubles that humanity visits upon itself and the earth are enough to engender the greatest skepticism about the potential for human beings to change.

A shift in consciousness is often proposed or detected or hoped for, but what is it?

Consciousness is simply awareness, especially awareness of awareness, the ability to reflect on our cognition, perception, experience, thought, and feelings. On a social scale, however, a shift in consciousness is an abstracted process that, in a vacuum, would presumably take place across social and cultural structures. Historically, such shifts are shifts in belief, a dogged embrace among masses of something new, or a resignation to the inevitability of a social or cultural change — a conquest, not usually for the better, from the point of view of the conquered.

But in order for humanity to stop the troubles, there must be not merely a shift in perception or even belief or structures, but a shift in values. This is why revolutions improve things only a little. The cycle of history turns between wide autonomy to narrow control and back again, inverting the hour-glass at some point before one end is full or empty. Or the pendulum swinging back and forth (another metaphor). Metaphors are too absolute, of course, because society and structures do change, but they do not stop changing, even as they pass through periods of flux, tighten control, exhaust themselves, ossify, collapse. They transform, mutate, readapt, and continue — or are replaced by a near clone. They cannot change completely because they are human, after all.

Societies and structures do not change fundamentally not because they are human but because they carry within themselves something vital to human beings such that no matter how inefficient, dysfunctional, or repressive, they safeguard a vital continuity for people. They constitute a social and cultural habitat that took centuries to evolve in relation to the material setting, and equally centuries for humans to adapt themselves to them, to eke out a sustainable way of living and coexisting with others.

But where these processes might seem to unfold mechanically as if the processes are entirely dependent on human will or instinct, or other human-made factors — and not all observers would attribute change to human-made factors — the resultant society cannot carve out an ideal without recourse to a period of devolving into a martial state, a feudal economy, an authoritarian culture of control mixed with autonomy for pursuit of that which does not matter or what does not affect centralization and control. The result is a rationalization of the animal instinct of violence.

Civilizations are uncontrolled human projections, not driven by bare instincts for survival and reproduction but nevertheless controlled by those in power, projected in directions that mitigate reason and exacerbate dependence on the centers of control. Eventually the instinctive drives inherited by humans from other animals are transmuted into “values.”

The resulting political, economic, and social character of the culture becomes its own self-sustaining values. At that point, values justify the tendencies of the society and culture into which the individual is born, grows, and matures. All those psychological facts of growth in infants (described by everyone from Piaget to Lacan) have little to do with socialization into cultural values. The glee of a baby’s discovery and identification predates culture. In that is the universal, at that point at mere months of age. After that, the natural factors merge with the values of the society (via others) and are less distinguishable. Individual tendencies become personality and character. Values are derived, only slightly modified by the person, but always derived, modified by personality. Belief and faith in the structures that are the person’s habitat are inevitable markers of what one knows as “reality.”

Thus the universal form of socialization can be expressed in this sequence:

     doctrine –> practice –> values

where doctrine represents the culture’s infrastructure and the individual’s experience of predefined reality; practice represents what the individual is supposed to do as a respondent or tribe-member or citizen or believer; and values are the resulting ideology or peculiarly personal set of expressions that the individual has synthesized from the culture.

The next post will argue that the exact opposite sequence must be pursued by the solitary.