I have been thinking about another one of George Monbiot’s brilliant articles over the past few days, in which he suggested that the left of centre political parties, both here and across the Atlantic, have failed to portray any sense of what they (and hopefully we) might regard as high values.
If, for example, your country has a public health system that ensures that everyone who needs treatment receives it, without payment, it helps instil the belief that it is normal to care for strangers, and abnormal and wrong to neglect them. If you live in a country where people are left to die, this embeds the idea that you have no responsibility towards the poor and weak. The existence of these traits is supported by a vast body of experimental and observational research, of which Labour and the US Democrats appear determined to know nothing.
Monbiot goes further than this however, to quote research into the way that extrinsic values (looking towards external signifiers such as fame, success, possessions, attractiveness) and intrinsic values (focused more on the self acceptance, and the desire to help others) affect our values and our politics;
Research across 70 countries suggests that intrinsic values are strongly associated with an understanding of others, tolerance, appreciation, cooperation and empathy. Those with strong extrinsic values tend to have lower empathy, a stronger attraction towards power, hierarchy and inequality, greater prejudice towards outsiders, and less concern for global justice and the natural world. These clusters exist in opposition to each other: as one set of values strengthens, the other weakens. They tend to report higher levels of stress, anxiety, anger, envy, dissatisfaction and depression than those at the intrinsic end. Societies in which extrinsic goals are widely adopted are more unequal and uncooperative than those with deep intrinsic values. In one experiment, people with strong extrinsic values who were given a resource to share soon exhausted it (unlike a group with strong intrinsic values), as they all sought to take more than their due.
Monbiot then considers how these extrinsic values are being promoted at present within our increasingly unequal and self-focused societies;
As extrinsic values are strongly associated with conservative politics, it’s in the interests of conservative parties and conservative media to cultivate these values. There are three basic methods. The first is to generate a sense of threat. Experiments reported in the journal Motivation and Emotion suggest that when people feel threatened or insecure, they gravitate towards extrinsic goals. Perceived dangers – such as the threat of crime, terrorism, deficits, inflation or immigration – trigger a short-term survival response, in which you protect your own interests and forget other people’s.
Here is the heart of the matter as far as I am concerned. The agenda that we live by, wittingly or not, has been set up by an extrinsic value system. We have been sold a lie that we are all under attack; from crime, economic disaster, immigrants, benefits scroungers, unaffordable health care. Our response to this seems to be to dig in, to get more for ourselves, to be less tolerant, less open, less forgiving, less motivated by altruism- all of which is totally incompatible with the Christian faith espoused by many of our politicians. Politicians- change the agenda. Change the value base- give us something to live for, not just a narrow me-first politics, but a politics of hope.