Revolution of Values

“I am convinced” declared Dr. Martin Luther King on an April day 46 years ago in a compelling critique of the war in Viet Nam, “that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.”

Over the intervening years, we did undergo a revolution of values, but not of the sort King envisioned. Repudiating his plea for a “shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society,” we made greed a sacrament and allowed corruption to infect every aspect of life. When King made the speech, America could have been on the threshold of an age of peace and enlightenment, but we didn’t step through the entryway. Instead, we assented to a radical transformation of values that casts the national character of the 1960’s in an almost virtuous light.

It’s not that values were debased. Much worse, they were abandoned wholesale. We opted for a feral existence, with predation by the brutal upon the rest. We still pay lip service to such values as tolerance, honor, peacefulness, thrift, and charity, but they no longer play a part in the life of our nation.

The motives and processes behind the revolution were altogether commercial. Nothing sells like the gratification of basic, instinctive drives. The natural compulsions to eat, stay warm, have sex, and avoid pain have vast commercial potential, as every merchant knows. Values, being the lubricant that makes social interaction possible, always involve the postponement of gratification, and so they interfere with commerce.

Luckily for gratification-mongers, there’s television. The lions of commerce own all the broadcasting systems, and so they use television almost exclusively to sell stuff. The advertising usually highlights personal gratification, achieved by products ranging from perfume to paper towels, while the non-advertising “content” almost always portrays life as a quest for personal gratification, punctuated by conflicts and frustrations. The lives of real people usually center on the care and protection of others, with little to spare for personal gratification. But narratives in which sacrifice is rewarded tend to reinforce values that undermine sales, and so they can’t be told. This leaves us viewers with self-serving characters who would be rapidly consumed by real life but who emerge strong and happy in TV fiction. We imitate them as if their fictitious “value” system were real, and this forces us to abandon the values that have allowed us to function in groups.

The valueless life is now a social imperative. When your boss says, “Tell him I’m not here,” you damn well do it, and maybe you grind your teeth a little. When your pastor says, “God needs you to put more in the basket,” you cough up, and maybe you emit a sigh. And when your fourth-grader asks whether the glaciers really will disappear in her lifetime or whether it’s fair to kill people by remote control, you tell her everything will be fine, and you don’t regret it for a second. Conscience turned out to be a burden too heavy for life in the third millenium.

“When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people,” King argued in that speech, “the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” The 21st Century sees his bleak prophesy fulfilled.

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