From the Boundary: ‘Yes Sir’ – Part 1
In the ‘values’ debate, the odd thing is that, so far as I know, the concept itself has been left unexplored. We talk glibly about values and even identify some of them, for example hard work and ‘respect’. But what is their nature and what work do they do?
Let me suggest that a ‘value’ is a generally accepted idea which we consider worthwhile and important enough to generate behaviour, something which is essentially ‘right’. ‘Right’ principles generate ‘right’ action, and so values can be used to ‘evaluate’ the kind of people we are. Their origin may be rooted in antiquity. They may be the fruit of common sense or of man thinking and doing his best. Their directive force works as principles do, rather than rules. They have weight but are not all-or-nothing. They’re a bit like signposts. They point the way, but don’t tell you when you’ve arrived or whether a foot past the signpost you’re still on the right track.
There are, of course, all sorts of value systems – moral, ideological, religious, social, cultural and so on. In the current debate we haven’t really separated them out, probably because we identify ‘moral’, ‘social’ and ‘religious’ as one. Thus we ‘say’ we are a ‘Christian country’, and so we find that many of the protagonists lamenting the passing of ‘old values’ are clergy. Bishop Fenty, at the 2015 Anglican Diocesan Service, was one of these. There he said we must return to these old values, reject indiscipline and recklessness, and espouse clean living. In other words, we must look back not forward and imprint the present with the stamp of the past. I suppose that Bishop Fenty would want to say that these old values are what define us as a people and a nation, or did.
A number of questions arise. What are these ‘old values’ and what part did they ever really play in our lives? Is reference to them, whatever they are, mere wishful thinking and nostalgia, rather like us saying of an old automobile ‘Ah they don’t make them like that any more’ – to which the response is almost inevitably ‘thank goodness for that’. Were these so-called old values really instruments of control and excuses for Pharisaism, judgmentalism and obsessions about the form of behaviour, rather than the substance? What’s the evidence for saying they have, in fact, been jettisoned? Or is it, rather, that they’ve simply been reformulated in modern terms? For example, despite the apparent waywardness of the young – and when weren’t the young wayward? – I see no evidence to suggest they reject the ‘value’ of hard work though, for them, they might express it in a different way and, at their age, other factors may seem equally important. But if you were to say to them ‘Do you agree that hard work is important in life’ I can’t imagine that any of them would say ‘no’. Perhaps I’ll report back on that. And if they were asked whether it was right to help someone in trouble, I can’t imagine for a moment that they would say ‘No. It would be right to leave them to it’.
Now this brings me to the value we call ‘respect’. In his Charge to Synod last month, Anglican Bishop John Holder attached considerable importance to it. ‘Respect’, he said, is central to human relationships and is rooted in mutuality. Religious belief “enhances” its need – I’m not sure whether that means it emphasises it or props it up – and we must treasure its “enduring quality” and pray that there will be more to come in the years ahead. All this is surely impeccable except, possibly, in one respect. It’s not entirely clear whether Bishop Holder is talking about ‘mutual respect’ in the context of religious or social values or a combination of the two. In any event, he’s surely talking about ‘mutual respect’ as an ‘old value’ and this, I think, is where we meet a difficulty.
When we enjoin respect, what are we saying? We’re saying things like: don’t lie to me; don’t discriminate against me; treat me with good faith, fairly; listen to me not just to other people; don’t gossip about me or try to steal my good name; answer my letters; don’t talk down to me; don’t betray me; don’t allow your plus or minus responses to me affect your decision making; don’t order me around as if I’m your servant. We’re saying that you don’t have to love me but you do have to realise that ultimately, no matter our respective positions in life, and no matter how much I still have to learn, in yourself you’re no better than me. We each have our own ways of dealing with life and living our lives as they are now – so yes, please recognise our differences and don’t rubbish me because I’m not you. I want to live the fullness of me, the ‘me’ that God’s responsible for and to whom I owe myself.
Well, leaving aside, say, Gospel values, was that really the ‘old way’ of looking at respect? The young certainly don’t think so. They say – and I’ve asked enough of them – that that wasn’t it at all. They say they were required to respect you simply because of your age, your position, your power over and irrespective of whether you’ve earned it, whether you deserve it. They say you’ve no absolute right to it unless you’re also prepared to give it. It’s a two-way thing. They say they too should be listened to and respected, and are entitled to assess what they’re told as well as be assessed. And they also say that those who sit in judgement on them, preaching and carping about values, are hypocrites who are no better than they are. They say that to be told they should be “flogged” because it’s in the Bible (Bishop Vibert Lowe, letter, 1 June) is itself an abomination. They say: ‘Well, why not bring back slavery then, and burn witches, and subjugate women and throw gays off tall buildings, and destroy whole peoples to satisfy the whims of a nasty, vengeful God whom Jesus himself would disown?’. In saying this, they’re saying they’re not stupid.
In other words, they say that ‘respect’ in the old order simply gave expression to a hierarchical way of looking at things which still stalks us, like the forms of action, from its grave. We can call it ‘Yes Sir-ism’. It’s neatly expressed in a Welsh ditty from long ago: ‘God bless the Squire and his relations and keep us in our proper stations’. As something to ponder for next week, we might want to consider who the “squires” are in our lives – for we surely have them.
Well, go safely then, until the next time.
God-talk from the boundary: I saw a homeless, hungry, shivering child on the street. I became angry and said to God: “Why Lord? Why don’t you do something?”. God said nothing for hours. Then in the deep night he said suddenly: “But I did do something. I made YOU” (Tony de Mello).