THE FIFTIES seem almost idyllic to many
of us. There was order in the world. People were almost universally
courteous to each other. People dressed neatly. Men wore suits
and hats. Women wore skirts and dresses. People didnt curse.
Couples didnt divorce. Children had both parents raising
them. Families sat down and ate their meals together. Being overweight
was rare. It was a simpler, less frantic, less stressful time.
Its easy to look back on these times with envy.
But all that peace and order came with
a heavy price: Socially-sanctioned repression. Women and minorities
were kept in their place. Conformity was highly valued and enforced.
Problems were swept under the rug. Television, radio, and newspapers
were strongly censored. The prevailing consensus morality was
imposed on everyone.
Of course, these are all sweeping generalizations,
and generalizations usually have exceptions. But you get the
idea. There was a strong social repression. But sometimes this
repression was good because bad stuff was repressed.
Specifically, impulses driven by biological
desire were repressed when they conflicted with societys
values. This is generally a good thing. Traditional social values
are usually put in place for practical reasons. For example,
if you dont allow young people to have sex unless theyre
married, you have fewer single moms, fewer fatherless children
(which causes the mother to work, which makes her absent too,
which means the kids partly raise themselves).
For another example, unrestrained expressions
of anger were repressed. And if you dont allow people to
express their anger freely, you have less violence, fewer battered
wives and children, etc. I know about the theory of bottling
up anger and how that supposedly leads to explosions of
temper, but it isnt true (read more about the venting theory here).
These impulses to have sex out of
wedlock or beat someone when youre angry might be
termed biological values. The body has its own values:
Sex, food, comfort, violence when angry, etc. Social values often
override or repress these biological values. And social values
should override biological values when the two are in
conflict. Social values are often more important, more valuable,
or have better long-term consequences.
But there is also a value we could call
higher than social values. Lets call it intellectual
value, for lack of a better word. This value can be described
as a combination of these words: reality, fact, honesty, truth,
actuality, authenticity, and freedom.
The classic illustration of this value
is when Copernicus said the sun is at the center of the universe,
not the earth, and then later when Galileo confirmed with his
telescopes that the earth is revolving around the sun.
This truth this actuality
was in conflict with the social order. The facts seemed to conflict
with the Christian Bible, considered the core of the Wests
system of social values. People were afraid the social order
would unravel if Galileos findings were accepted by large
numbers of the population.
The social value system and its repressive
power which had played such an important role in restraining
the unbridled expression of lower biological values
were employed to repress a higher intellectual
value: The honest admission of a fact.
Most of us would agree that this was wrong,
although we might not have been able to explain exactly what
was wrong with it.
When social values try to keep women in
the home against their will, it is also wrong. Many women do
not honestly want to spend their whole life at home, but want
to pursue their goals and engage with the world. They want the
freedom to choose their own path and to authentically explore
We can see now that women should have the
right to do this because theyre human beings and its
only fair that they have rights equal to men. If it upturns societys
values, so be it. The intellectual value is more important and
should trump social values when the two conflict.
But that doesnt mean social values
are no longer important, and this is the fundamental mistake
of the 60s. Because nobody made the distinction in levels
of values back then, and since obviously all this social
repression was repressing good stuff like honesty, truth,
and authenticity, then the rebellious youth of the 60s concluded
that social values were wrong and should be rejected.
Social repression should be stopped. Thats how a lot of
people felt at the time.
And what happened? Unrestrained biological
values were allowed to flood in. People were having sex out of
wedlock. Children were being born not knowing who their father
was, much less having a father help raise them. Violence and
discourtesy became more commonplace. People carelessly indulged
in drug abuse, drunkenness, and other forms of potentially destructive
biological pleasures. A kind of vulgarity began to express itself,
and even though we can see something is wrong with that, without
the three distinctions between biological values, social values,
and intellectual values, its hard to put your finger on
In correctly acknowledging that intellectual
values are more important and should override social values,
the rebellious youth of the 60s accidentally allowed even lower
values (biological values) to override higher values (social
values), simply because of a lack of clarity about the distinctions
between the three values.
In rejecting social domination of intellectual
value, they threw the baby out with the bathwater. They simultaneously
rejected the social domination of biological values, unleashing
But now we can take these distinctions
and rebel with more precision, understanding which values should
rightly and justly override which values, and if we do this,
we can usher in the era those rebellious youngsters dreamed of
and make their highest vision a reality in the 21st century.
I didnt invent these distinctions.
I got them from Robert Pirsigs excellent book, Lila:
An Inquiry Into Morals.
To see a good illustration of these principles,
watch the movie, Fear
and Loathing in Las Vegas. Youll see a rebellion against
social values for the sake of biological and intellectual
values without distinguishing between them, making the inevitable
result a wretched and overindulgent lifestyle. The movie
is based on a true story. The two main characters leave a path
of destruction and confusion in their wake.
Another similar illustration can be seen
in the movie, The
Doors. Val Kilmer plays Jim Morrison, who didnt make
the distinction between the three kinds of values, and left a
similar path of destruction and confusion in his wake.
Jim Morrison is a good example because
he was both creative (freedom is an intellectual value) and self-destructive
(by the uncontrolled gratification of biological values).
You can read a good illustration of an
intellectual value successfully and justifiably overriding a
social value in modern times by reading the story of Woineshet Zebene.