Thursday, February 24, 2011

Values and the Spirit of America

Anand Giridharas[1] was interviewed by Jon Stewart on the Daily Show several weeks ago. Toward the end of the interview, he said this:

“When we talk about India; when we talk about China in this country; we talk about the economic threats. We’re all obsessed with economic threats. We’re all concerned about emerging markets. I think the real thing that Americans need to think about is that these countries pose a challenge of culture, a challenge of spirit. Just look at the segment you did on culture and discourse in America. We are all engaged in pulling each other down. We’re creating a culture of destruction and pulling each other down. And, India and China for all the work that lies ahead of them, are starting to create cultures of hope, cultures of creation where there’s a consensus on how do we create something extraordinary. And, we need to not be worried about the economic threat but that spirit in about two and a half billion people.”

I think he’s right. Furthermore, I think that the talk about civility will achieve nothing without visiting the underlying values.

A culture can be thought of in terms of its elements: behavior (norms), values, beliefs and philosophy. Values are often misunderstood, adjudged good or bad, or confused with behaviors or beliefs. But values are the key to creating or changing a culture.

The following are things that I have learned about values[2]:

  • Values individually are neutral
  • Values are priorities (I value this over that.)
  • There are over 100 human values
  • Values come in two flavors – means (I value this way of doing things.) and goals (This is what I want to accomplish.)
  • Values are derived from beliefs and are the proximate causes of behaviors
  • Values in humans develop through maturation of beliefs (1. The world is a mystery that I must fear; 2. The world is a project that I must control; 3. The world is a project that I must join; 4. The world is a mystery that I must care for.) Not everyone, or every nation, matures through all four stages before they die.
  • Values sets can create positive or negative behaviors (Good or bad behavior judged by the belief system of the culture.)
  • Values operate dialectically in pairs (means and goals) to produce a third value (goal)
  • Chains of pairs of values operating dialectically results in the preferred thrust of the culture
  • Values are created, reinforced or destroyed by a leader’s actions or non actions
  • Any member can become a cultural leader
  • It takes a long time for cultural change to occur
  • You can temporarily affect change in values with resources and projects
  • You can make long term shifts in values with education, incentives, communication, infrastructure and measurements

We know a lot about human values and culture. So, are we building the nation we want and need for the future?

Only 10 – 20 years ago I would have told you that I thought we were moving into a stage three society (the world is a project in which we must participate) with hints of a stage four society (the world is a mystery that we must care for). But now we are being motivated by fear and control (stage 1 and stage 2 societies). It’s tempting, and too easy, to blame this on terrorism. I think the regression is internal and much more dangerous. Terrorism is being used as a tool.

In reality, what we know about culture and values is being used to build a new nation. Except it’s not operating in the open. It’s hidden. And, it’s utilizing the fear of some people of personal and organizational growth towards maturity. And, the ultimate goal is transfer of power and wealth.

Giridharas also talked about culture and spirit. What is meant by spirit?

According to Wikipedia, “Spirit has many different meanings and connotation, but commonly refers to the non-corporal essence of a being or entity.”

There were two things that I learned from interviews with the coaches of the super bowl teams a few weeks ago that shed some light on the subject of culture and spirit:

  • Football is a game played by emotional men. The coach’s roll is to channel that emotional energy.
  • A team develops spirit when the players stop playing for themselves and start playing for each other.

I think you could substitute life for football and people for men, and you’d still have some true statements.

As it turns out in the evolution of individuals and their organizations, commonly held values shift from a focus on self (selfishness or narcissism common in our culture now) to a focus on the other (all that is outside of ourselves).

Michael Novak’s Spirit of Democratic Capitalism provides some insight as well: “What do I mean by ‘democratic capitalism’? I mean three systems in one: a predominately market economy; a polity respectful of the rights the individual to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; and a system of cultural institutions moved by the ideals of liberty and justice for all. In short, three dynamic and converging systems functioning as one: a democratic polity, and economy based on markets and incentives, and a moral-cultural system which is pluralistic and, in the largest sense, liberal.”

One profound truth that emerges from Novak’s work is how delicate the balance is between democratic polity, capitalistic economy and a pluralistic society. And, any attempt to change this balance ought to be viewed with alarm.

[1] Giridharas is the author of India Calling: An Intimate Portrait of a Nation’s Remaking. He writes the “Currents” column for The New York Times and its global edition, the International Herald Tribune: it explores fresh ideas, global culture and the social meaning of technology, among other subjects. In 2009, he completed a four-and-a-half-year tour reporting from India for The Times and the Herald Tribune, as their first Bombay presence in the modern era. He reported on India’s transformation, Bollywood, corporate takeovers, terrorism, outsourcing, poverty and democracy. He was appointed a columnist in 2008, writing the “Letter from India” series. In his article in the New York Times on 1/28/11, reflected on President Obama’s State of the Union address, “Obama Tries to Recapture a Lost Dream.

[2] Values are something we choose freely after considering the alternatives that we prize publicly, and that we act on immediately and repeatedly. The Genesis Effect, Brian Hall

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