Note: We are so quick to declare that a particular behavior will propel us towards a correct end, we cease to understand that behavior does not exist in a vacuum.
The tragedy of another school shooting is not made more important by directing attention to their seeming ubiquity. Each and every one of these events is used as a case example of the failing of some particular institution, often selected by virtue of one’s political ideology. Liberals will decry not having enough social programs in place, conservatives will note the breakdown of the family, fundamentalist religionists will point to gay marriage or the legal support for abortion. All of these and more, from the serious to the ridiculous, will be played out on various media forms, but none will come close to addressing the deeper issues involved. This lack of a result will not be due to a difference in values, there is no group claiming an absence in valuing life or love or family. Indeed, the very fact that all groups are claiming different social problems stemming from the same general values, points to the underlying problem being ignored or simply not being seen.
This confusion stems from the dual manner with which we view and judge behavior. We can call the first form of judgment, internal responsibility, and the second, external pressure.
From a place of internal responsibility, we promote the notion that behavior is a product of a person's ideas concerning reality, ethics, etc. This behavior is seen as connected in a straight line to that person’s values, with the selection of the behavior being made out of a panoply of options. The American judicial system is based on this, as is the social politics notion of pulling yourself up by gravity-defying bootstraps, or for those spiritually-minded, the positive thinking movement follows this structure as well. All base their judgment on the notion that a person who has committed an act could have at the time done something different, that they selected from potential behaviors the one they actually did.
The external pressure form of judgment resides in the contextual backdrop of family, society and biology. External pressure could be referred to as the “not me” form of judgment, where “I” is somehow held as being separate and distinct from the material world. “Mitigating circumstances” is the reference in a legal framework, whereas liberal social policy points to some lack in education, social movement or financial freedom. Whatever the frame, the result is a diminished capacity to choose from what otherwise would be available behavioral options. The cited variables are considered outside of the control of the individual.
In personal practice, judgment following internal responsibility is often made as it pertains to others, whereas the external pressure form is kept when viewing our own actions. “He/she should just get a job” is immediately turned into “the economy is terrible” when it pertains to ourselves. Colloquially we often hear the phrase “it wasn’t the real me” or “I don’t know what came over me” when attempting to explain some action that afterwards is determined to be outside of our usual values.
In both forms of judgment, the assumption is the same, that behavior propels us or moves us toward a particular value, as if the value exists in some form “out there” waiting to be fulfilled. We can call it the “values shape toy,” where block shapes will only go inside the ball through the pre-cut forms already in place. The only difference is where the impetus for that movement is originating; with the first judgment being internal and the second judgment being external. This conflating of particular behavior with values is simple and makes for great media sound-bites and knee-jerk judgments. However, this almost completely destroys the potential for dialogue by making any debate one of battling or competing positional statements. Further, such thinking also diminishes our felt experience of being both in and with the world, removing our sense that we live in a world that interacts with us.
Changing the view of how values manifest first requires seeing values not as pre-formed behaviors but as deriving from our narrative principles. These principles form the cognitive foundation of how we construct our perspective, working alongside the social relationships we live in. Notice in the structure above how both the first and second forms of judgment are not inaccurate so much as incomplete. The first correctly notes the reality of our thoughts and how we look at our lives as playing a part in manifesting behavior, what we often refer to as personal responsibility. The second correctly points to the situational context that our personal history, social connections and biology work through.
Behavior does not propel us towards our values, it manifests them, but it does so in and through the world that we are an integral part of. Looking at behavior to judge others and ourselves is only helpful when it moves us to more deeply consider the myriad of variables that reside as building blocks to its fulfillment. Understanding ourselves and our fellow travelers in life is not a matter of looking at the proclaimed end results that are our behavior. Learning about how our lives are shaped by us and for us means looking at ourselves as integral beings, which in the end provides a source for respect and wonder as well as stopping us from rushing to unwarranted conclusions.
© David Teachout