Friday, April 15, 2005

Review of "America's Crisis of Values," by Wayne Baker.

Thought-provoking and timely synthesis, April 15, 2005

The best thing about this book is that it raises a number of very profound and important questions in a way that makes you think deeply about them. If you have any interest at all in what insight scientific reasoning can bring into large scale human behavior, this book will truly make you think.

Rather than the usual political diatribe, this is: (1) an exceptional objective summary of what is special about the United States drawing from a wealth of previous work, (2) a wide-ranging and balanced analysis of the widespread American perception of waging an internal culture war at the turn of the millennia, and (3) a speculative and potentially somewhat testable (but largely untested) cyclical theory of cultural crises in general as a product of both endogenous and exogenous factors.

Baker finds no empirical support for the theory that American traditional values have diminished over time, and support for only a loose coupling of our polarized moral orientations (which he refers to as absolutism and relativism) and our religious beliefs and social attitudes. In this context, absolutism simply refers to the core idea that ultimate authority must come from a transcendental and perhaps eternal source, while relativism is the core idea that authority resides in the individual.

Baker finds that our political parties are highly and increasingly polarized but that when it comes to particular issues, Americans of all stripes tend to share more values and attitudes than they differ about, in spite of also being a mixture of absolutists and relativists. This is because he finds that our moral orientation is only loosely coupled to our religious beliefs and social attitudes. People can have the same religious beliefs yet differ in social attitudes, and vice versa, and similarly for our moral orientations and our religious beliefs. There are atheist absolutists and Christian relativists. Absolutists and relativists live and work and worship and debate side by side in the U.S. rather than representing a divided social structure.

When political pundits try to put every social issue in terms of the two sides of the culture war (usually Christians vs. Secularists), according to Baker's analysis they are making an unwarranted assumption that beliefs, attitudes, and moral orientations are much more tightly coupled than they really are. Thus they are exaggerating the polarization of the nation. The question is ... why do we do this, and why does it seem so compellingly true?

Baker's data shows besides an elevated sense of anxiety over the economy, what made the 1980's most distinctive was that across every demographic category, huge numbers of Americans went from being moral relativists to being moral absolutists. Prior to 1980, by far most Americans answered survey questions in a way that revealed them to be moral relativists, but by 1990 we were half relativists and half absolutists. This even division, according to Baker, emphasizes the contrast between these different moral orientations and the respective different guides they provide to conduct and the evaluation of goals. It is this even distribution of absolutism and relativism that Baker theorizes creates the impression of being a divided nation, even though our traditional values have during the same period remained entirely stable, we have remained remarkably independent of the secularization trend of the other modern nations, and we are actually converging over time rather than polarizing over social issues (with the notable exception of abortion).

So Baker does find a gap between the facts of American culture revealed by values surveys, and American'ss perception of their own values. However he does not dismiss the gap as a matter of mass hysteria or ignorance or simply political propaganda. The primary purpose of the book is to engage in a systematic analysis and understanding of the "adaptive" or "functional" reason for this gap. The assumption is that perceiving ourselves as waging a culture war is important for some reason and that our public rhetoric has adapted to that need. The adaptive reason that Baker comes up with is that America is unique in being a nation united by creed and ideology rather than by culture, and so as a result of our unique cultural heritage, traditional values have become the thing that make us Americans. Traditional values are on one end of one of Baker's well-validated values scales, the other end being secular-rational values. Secular-rational values are what the modernization and secularization theories expect us to see increasing as a nationĂ¢€™s wealth increases and as they shift from agriculture to industrial and service economies. We see that happen all over the world very consistently, except for the United States. The United States maintains its traditional value orientation over time because that is the source of its sense of identity as a nation and many Americans begin to feel threatened when they see evidence of encroaching secularization. In spite of highly visible legal conflicts over the interpretation of the establishment clause, we still share the same traditional values that unite us as Americans.

One of the main sources of confusion over American values can be seen in the second well-validated values scale that Baker uses: survival vs. self-expression values. Many discussions of values do not distinguish these two scales, yet factor analysis shows them to be reliably independent. Although Americans have retained their traditional values and have not moved increasingly toward secular-rational values as predicted by secularization theory and as seen in other nations, we have moved particularly far and quickly from survival values to self-expression values.

Self-expression values combine with traditional values to give the unique hybrid found in American culture, we internalize both traditional values and individualism, and these are actually different guides to conduct. The result is, according to Baker's theory, a uniquely motivated search for meaning among Americans in trying to reconcile their mixed traditional and self-expression values. This is an interesting and unexpected aspect of Baker's synthesis: he says that the contradictions created by traditional + self-expression values create a cognitive dissonance, leading to the feeling or perception of a crisis of values.

Baker gives just enough background to make his point and show its relevance to his argument, but never so much that I forgot the point he was trying to make. You'll be introduced to various theories of religious history and cultural evolution, various psychological theories of how beliefs and attitudes are related, several fascinating maps of the values of different nations and how they have changed in recent years, and a revealing look at how absolutism and relativism affect our thinking.

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