I think we can probably all agree that language has meaning. “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” is largely accepted to be a fallacy as we have grown to understand that language and labels can hurt us incredibly deeply.
It is interesting to me however that the other side of this, the things we promote and speak of as “positive” values, traits or virtues are not necessarily critically examined or thought about in nearly the same way. People often talk of “our values” but I am not sure A) that we necessarily share all the same values and, more importantly, B) that where we will both agree yes I believe x is important we actually mean the same thing. Lets take for example loyalty. Loyalty is generally considered to be a good thing, a quality you want in a friend or colleague for example, a building block in a strong relationship. It is certainly true that loyalty can produce many great things; trusting a friend (until proven otherwise) accused of betraying a confidence for example.
Alongside the great things I have seen loyalty produce I have also seen it generate toxic behaviour in both my personal and professional life. I have experienced colleagues who see themselves as loyal to each other perceive a slight upon one of them and respond by jointly lashing out to undermine, discredit or isolate the “offending party”, while feeling perfectly righteous and legitimate. Who wouldn’t want to stand up for their mate right? It doesn’t actually matter if the so-called “offending party” had a legitimate concern or was misunderstood or both. Essentially this is bullying that has become morally justifiable.
I have also seen friendships fall apart as “loyal friends” attack and isolated a friend in the group who draws some boundaries about behaviour they find concerning, such as heavy drinking or hitting children, all in the name of loyalty. Loyalty to a group also can become heavily intertwined with racism and extreme nationalism as one group or groups are othered in the cause of being loyal (to those like me).
Thinking about what we mean and how we are really using or realising a value is not worth doing just about loyalty. It’s worth us thinking about whenever we think about and communicate concepts such as honesty, justice, fairness, equality, solidarity, helpfulness, kindness…. the list goes on. For what I think of as kindness in a given situation may be received or even really be a disguise for patronising or condescending, even dishonest behaviour. I have seen solidarity actualised in ways which isolated anyone who had the audacity to express a different opinion or call out poor behaviour from the group. Some expressions of helpfulness I have witnessed have been startling in their ability to dis-empower. I think most of us will have experienced a situation where honesty is a poor veneer for being brutal and hurtful.
I don’t say these things to discourage everyone from striving to live and act in ways that we feel are right because it all gets lost in translation anyway. Instead I think that we need to be more honest with ourselves about what we do under these value banners. If I am to be loyal and kind in any given context I want to make sure that doesn’t become a free pass to be a passive aggressive, bullying asshole. I want to make sure that I can be sensitive and honest while not using that as an opportunity to sulk and manipulate others. If I want to work for a society that is more just I can’t use this as an opportunity to discredit anyone who I think is not as radical or passionate as me about doing this.
Further to that I think as the “left” we need to be really aware that we don’t work hard on simply attempting to trigger values such as justice and fairness and cooperation in people (such as Mark Chenery talks so ably about ) only to be horrified or disappointed when people’s expression of these values differs from our own. I love the idea of reaching out to communicate ideas in a frame of shared values, yet I think two people can react to the having the same values highlighted, both want to take action and yet go down very different pathways. A modern example of this is of course the Trump debacle and the growth of the “alt right”. Over a large number of traditional working class concerns such as jobs, the cost of living and the corruption of the political elite people mobilised both around Trump and around Sanders (yes the Democrats were foolish to make Clinton their candidate). Polar opposites, with nothing in their support base in common you would think, yet actually many supporters of both candidates articulated concerns about many of the same things and spoke about the same values.
So our work doesn’t end with getting messages out that reach people from all different walks of life that trigger “universal or benevolent values” as we have to actualise them in ways that really demonstrate what we mean by ideas or concepts such as loyalty and justice. Unless we are cool with either Trump or Sanders I guess. This requires us to be critical and analytical of ourselves, our actions, our aspirations and our impact on others. Interrogating ours elves and pushing the boundaries of what values actually look like in practice, rather than simply redrawing lines so we fit while others do not. We cannot stop the “right” from using the same value laden language that we do so we need to all show people through actions, critical thinking and reflection and more action what the difference is between a Trump and a Sanders, a Corbyn and a May.
It starts with remembering it ourselves.