Society Without Core Values?
by Robert Weissberg
Issue 205 – June 6, 2012
Gay marriage, thank you Mr. President, is very much in the news. And, predictably, the mainstream media has hailed this endorsement as a commendable step toward fairness, equality and the implementation of a long overdue civil right. I personally have no problem with gays, even their private sexual proclivities; what concerns me is sustaining a culture and, as the old adage goes, you do not know what you have until you don’t have it.
The issue is not one of tolerating homosexual behavior. At least in private, nearly all bedroom behavior is now perfectly legal. Nor is the issue one of discrimination against gays. Countless laws at all levels currently ban discrimination based on sexual preference. Nor is the battle about public acceptance. Popular TV programs now feature openly gay characters and public figures increasingly acknowledge, often proudly, their homosexuality. The issue is about what constitutes normal in the sense of what are our norms. In this context, legally permitted same-sex marriage is about making two different things morally equivalent. In effect, President Obama has said, Yes, since time began every society defined marriage as a heterosexual institution, and many of you still agree, but that’s now old-fashioned. Your values are now antiquated and to be replaced by values decided by intense, elite led political lobbying.
Let’s begin with the obvious: all societies, no exception, are bound together by core values and absent this consensus, cohesion is impossible. Doubters should try organizing even a small group where members disagree on fundamentals or, better yet, visit a tribalized Afghanistan where internecine violence is endemic. Values certainly evolve but there is a sizable gap between a bottom up evolution and a well-organized, intensive media top down campaign.
That America rested on certain core values was widely accepted until the 1960s and so much so that articulation was superfluous. Consider the status of the traditional nuclear family. The Ozzie and Harriet show poked fun at the Nelson family, yet the jokes were never about their fervent embrace of “square” values. Beginning in the early 60’s, however, America’s unspoken consensus came under attack, if not ridicule. Catch phrases like counter-culture, alternative lifestyles, question authority, the need for self actualization and do your own thing reflected this assault. “Shock” comedians like Lenny Bruce prospered skewing bourgeois sensibilities. Ozzie and Harriet Nelson and their children David and Ricky were not just comical; the whole Nelson family arrangement was now quaintly obsolete.
The heart of this attack was the belief that conventional morality unjustifiably constrained personal freedom. Why should Harriet be domestically “imprisoned” to cook and clean? Who authorized Ozzie and Harriet to micro-manage David and Ricky? And, of course, sexual repression was everywhere though never stated. Surely Harriet deserved an opportunity to explore her sexuality, perhaps with another woman, even in a ménage à trios so as to “grow.” From being the necessary glue permitting civil society, the moral consensus became “arbitrary” constraints on personal autonomy. Life choices went from a very limited fixed menu to an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord, and no two people would fill their plates the same goodies.
Needless to say, the celebrations of “alternatives” soon evolved into a multi-front attack on what defined normal. Good and bad were just” differences” with none better than any other. Some “families” might be a single mother and a parade of live-in boyfriends, or two romantically involved women, but it was still a family. In some instances, a “village” replaced Mom and Pop. Why should chastity be judged superior to promiscuity? Everybody could decide for themselves and a few innovative souls concocted their own unique religions. .
What is important here is not good or bad behavior per se. Fundamental is the hierarchy of values, what is best, second best and all the way down to the worst of the worst. What is best (and worst) is what defines society and when nothing is any better (or worse) than anything else, civil society is replaced by a collection of unconnected people who just happen to share a territory.
To appreciate the important of a moral hierarchy, consider marital infidelity. It is one thing to cheat on a spouse on the sly; quite another to do it openly and, to add insult to injury, proclaim that such infidelity is a valid moral lifestyle (“open marriage”). In the former instance the unfaithful spouse recognizes their immoral behavior by trying to hide it; in the latter instance, public acknowledgement attempts to legitimize the once immoral. In the final analysis, societal cohesion can survive the sly cheater but not outright attacks on the very idea of monogamy. There is a huge difference between sheepishly admitting “I have cheated on my spouse” versus proclaiming that “marital fidelity is wholly arbitrary and therefore just a matter of personal choice, no different from preferring vanilla over chocolate.” Families are doomed when couples can just make up the marital rules as they go along. Who knows, after a few years bedroom boredom might instigate calls for polygamy or polyandry or even government mandated affordable prostitution (more “honest” anti-marriage fans would insist). With such uncertainty, why get married in the first place? Why risk having children? This is akin to making investment with unstable currencies where the commercial code rests on whim.
Proponents of same sex marriage are not asking for toleration of homosexuality. As mentioned, this (and multiple legal protections) already exists. What same sex marriage fans demand is legitimacy and celebration, the legal certification that a union between same sex couples is just as valid as a union between a man and a woman. President Obama seeks to expand “marriage” to mean something quite different than its historic meaning to placate a political constituency since the legal benefits of marriage do not require applying the word “marriage.” Civil unions are no longer enough. This is more than debasing the language though it is certainly that. It is an effort to dilute once rock solid “moral currency” that defined civil society. Education abounds with such counterfeiting: academically struggling 6th graders are called “scholars” while high school “graduates” often cannot read their diplomas. This is hardly a battle over semantics. Try holding a society together when nobody can say for sure what important words now mean or what they will mean next week.
In some ways the au courant know all this but keep it quiet. As Charles Murray’s new book Coming Apart documents there are four cultural values that are in great decline today that are essential to economic success and personal happiness: industriousness, honesty, marriage and religion. Since these values tend to be undermined by the popular culture today the decline is most apparent in the lower classes with their high rates of preferring welfare to work, cleverness to honesty, single lifestyles to marriage and irreligion – and the less successful lives that follow from these counter lifestyles. Interestingly, Murray’s data show that the upper classes who first adopted the counter-culture now support Murray’s core values and reap the rewards in more successful lives, careers and families. The problem is that they do not “preach what they practice.” They keep the secret to their success quiet in order not to appear conventional. If no one will support a nation’s core values that make life successful or even possible, how can society function at all?
Robert Weissberg is a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois. He is the author of eleven books on politics and pedagogy.