Our values are generally defined as principles or standards of behaviour. They are what we use to help us judge of what is important to us in our lives. Some of our values form the core of who we are and change very little throughout our lives. Whilst some of our other values change as we develop and grow. We also have some values which we share with other people. These shared values help us to come together as a cohesive society.
As our shared values guide how we perceive and understand the world, we are unlikely to see them as values. Instead, we accept them as givens. It is just how the world works. We learn these values as children and they condition us to fit in with our society. However, these shared values also change over time. The values we share today in our society will be different to the values that were shared in the societies of the 18th century.
Examples of the values that most people in our society share today include rationality, objectivity science, progress, etc. These are the values that are generally taught to us at school and which we employ in our work. Philosophers would describe these values as being associated with the ‘modernist’ era of our society which emerged with industrialisation in the late 19th and early 20th century. Essentially, we’ve used science to rationally and objectively understand the natural world so that we can exploit it in order to progress the human endeavour and increase our wellbeing. But have we taken these values too far? Our society is environmentally, economically and psychologically unsustainable. We are already living beyond the means of our planet, we have high levels of inequality, and we are increasingly suffering from mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety. It would appear that our modernist values are now leading us towards a societal crisis. The values of our work are destroying our community.
Since the 1960’s there has been a growing backlash against these modernist values, especially from within universities. Philosophers have described this as the ‘postmodernist’ era which is essentially a critique of modernism. Postmodernism values an attitude of scepticism which critiques the generally accepted notions of objective reality, morality, truth, reason, and social progress. Rather than accepting there is an objective truth, postmodernists argue there are multiple perspectives on the truth, with each perspective being grounded in the social context of the perceiver. They also don’t believe in rationality, arguing that we can never be rational thinkers as our thoughts are always influenced by our emotions and our unconscious. So postmodernism creates and accepts a pluralistic society giving space for us each to perceive and understand the world in different ways according to our own diverse values. But are we now taking postmodernism too far? Without shared values which unite us and create a cohesive society, we are now fragmenting in sub-groups and we are seeing the rise of ‘identity politics’. We are increasing attaching our identity to the beliefs and values we share with similar people in our society. These groups may be aligned with our politics, sexuality, gender, religion, ethnicity, or even whether we are a leaver or remainer, etc. So in the postmodernist era, whilst our society is facing a crisis of sustainability, we are busy arguing amongst ourselves.
Do not despair; there is hope on the horizon. Philosophers are now talking about metamodernism emerging as a reaction to postmodernism. Whist the term has been around since the 1970s it has gained ground since the economic crisis of 2008. As a perspective on life, metamodernism values acceptance and thrives in the paradoxical and self-contradictory nature of our society. It takes a ‘both-and’ rather than an ‘either-or’ perspective on life. Metamodernist philosophy allows people to oscillate back and forth between different, and often opposing, views and hence employs concepts such as ‘sincere irony’, ‘informed naivety’ and ‘pragmatic romanticism’. It values left and right politics, objectivity and subjectivity, co-operation and competition, secularism and spirituality, etc. By employing metamodernist values, rather than being separated by arguing for or against or deciding who is right or wrong, we can use the energy of difference to stimulate and create change. Difference creates the opportunity for listening and dialogue. Rather than focusing on the negative and what divides us, metamodernist values allow us to focus on the positive and what could unfold in the space between us as we come together. When we listen we can be changed by what we hear and in dialogue we can give voice to what is emerging between us.
Does metamodernism sound a bit far-fetched? Is it just an excuse to flip-flop in our decision making? Maybe so, but a core belief in metamodernist philosophy is the need for human growth. It is only at the highest stages of growth that we are able to hold paradoxical views without conflict. The modernist and postmodernist eras are just a reflection of the level of our collective consciousness. As a society, if we are to perceive and understand the world using metamodernist values then each of us needs to grow to higher stages of consciousness. Just as our society develops through stages of development, so do our values and our personalities. If we are to avoid the societal crisis being caused by adherence and overuse of our modernist and postmodernist values then we need to focus on our psychological growth. As Einstein is purported to have said “no problem can be solved by the level of consciousness that created it”.
About The Author
Terry is a Leadership Psychologist. He develops leaders across a range of different industries and sectors, from graduates to executives. As well as being a Director of Create Seven, he is also a Director of a business psychology consultancy, the Create Network, and a social enterprise, the Create Community Network. This article has been published in support of World Values Day on 18th October 2018.