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By: Daniel Krawczyk, Ph.D.

In a previous post we described the ten basic human values described by Shalom H. Schwartz and his colleagues. The ten values transcend local circumstances and are considered nearly universal across cultures. If this is the really the case, then why do people disagree so much around politics? Shouldn’t our shared values carry the day and lead to greater harmony in our conversations?

We think one reason for wide-ranging disagreements is that the ten basic human values often operate covertly below the surface. We don’t teach children about the ten values. We don’t even teach adults explicitly about them. Lacking explicit descriptions of these values, cultures go on to independently develop different framings for the same values. The framings become the vocabulary with which we speak of values within a specific group. Over time traditions and window dressings become tightly intertwined with the basic human values until the group-specific framings become ground-truths. Different groups then appear to hold different truths. People will describe the same basic value using different words and narratives. Before long, when members of different cultures interact, people talk across purposes and fail to realize that they may really be arguing about the same basic human value that they both share. Their value-frames differ, and this breeds hostility. Each comes to believe the other party just doesn’t “get it”.

The Pew Research Center has analyzed core differences between the cherished beliefs professed by Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Both groups describe family and children as being their top priority. Both groups commonly identify friends, community, and relationships as being important. Both groups value material well-being, stability, and quality of life. These are core human values indeed. They reflect the prioritization of a stable life, social connectedness, and family growth. In the language of the ten basic human values these priorities indicate that most Americans strive forsecurity, self-direction, benevolence, and universalism. So, why can’t Americans all just get along?

The Pew Research group also notes some key political differences. Republicans tend to cite religion, spirituality, and belief in the nation as being important in giving their lives meaning. Democrats reportedly find meaning in mental health, physical health, recreation, nature, and pets. Okay, now we’re getting somewhere on the whole disagreement front.

But don’t Democrats also attend religious services, have spiritual experiences, and fight for America? “You’re darn right!” as Joe Biden might say. And don’t Republicans stay in shape, enjoy the outdoors, and own pets? As Sarah Palin would say “you betcha!”.

The two-party core disagreements may center around the way that people express the basic human values. The two parties have their own narratives by which they frame and discuss sets of basic human values that they have come to call their own.

Imagine a stereotypical red state voter. She takes pride in her appearance as she dutifully heads to a Christian service to seek spiritual connection and experience community. While there she stops to contemplate the meaning of life. She then returns home to be greeted by her trusty German sheppard. She takes a walk around her property at dusk staying in shape and giving her mind a break. She reflects on her good fortune having raised a family in a stable community where her views can be heard. What a country to live in!

Now let’s imagine a prototypical blue state progressive. He takes his cocker spaniel on a hike in the mountains. Along the way he stops to take in the views, glimpsing the peaks and watching hawks circle majestically. He reflects on the divine, the meaning of life, and of our place in the world. He contemplates the human journey. Afterward, he meets friends by the ocean to discuss ideas on diet and exercise. He appreciates the freedom and quality of life he has in this great nation.

Are these people really all that different at the end of the day? No, they aren’t…and yes, they are. Despite the clear similarities in daily life activities, they frame their lives differently. Republicans often describe their divine and transcendent experiences as taking place in Christian houses of worship. Democrats may frame these same basic human experiences as taking place within Unitarian services or in the great outdoors. Note that both are engaged in promoting the same basic human values (universalism and benevolence); however, the standard Republican framing mixes in more tradition and conformity, while the standard Democrat version downplays these values and instead emphasizes self-direction and stimulation. The core values don’t often operate in isolation. It’s the unique combinations of multiple values that end up looking rather different in practice leading people to imagine that they are operating from completely different playbooks.

Mind that these are not irreconcilable differences. Rather the differences focus on the framing, the language, and the different manners of expression.

Perhaps Americans can transcend our differences if we are willing to overlook these surface aspects of the values framing. We can actively dig deeper to consider what we have in common in the depths of our human minds. If one is willing, knowledge of the basic human values unlocks that possibility, as these values act as a Rosetta Stone by which we can translate among the framings and words to understand the core values at play in each situation.

Choice is key. If you choose not to respect other people’s traditions, their manners of expression, and their preferred framing, then you will reap hostility. Taking the disrespectful position overly emphasizes conformity and tradition to the exclusion of the other side of the value pie-chart. We all have within us the values of self-direction and stimulation too, which balance out an oversized demand for conformity. But don’t go too far down the self-direction/stimulation path though, or you risk becoming an individualized island untethered from others. Too much emphasis of any one slice of the values pie becomes counterproductive. Balance out your values-profile by remembering to consider multiple slices of the values pie as flexible sets.

Become familiar with the basic human values. Consider how they relate to your own daily life activities. Then use them like a translation guide to navigate the perceived gaps between your own deep concerns and those of other people. Balance your emphasis on individual basic human values within your own mind. Doing so is healthy for maintaining perspective and helps us to relate to one another. If we do that and invite others to be similarly balanced, then we can always pivot toward common ground during a disagreement.

“Our American tradition of neighbor helping neighbor has always been one of our greatest strengths and most noble traditions.”

-Ronald Reagan

“Thinking isn't agreeing or disagreeing. That's voting.”

-Robert Frost


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