Working With Values In Communication; Why It Can Be Worthwhile

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What are values? And why can they or should they play a role in communication; a brief introduction.

The guiding-principles of a community are called values. The guiding behaviours of the community members are called virtues (e.g., sincerity). The interplay of values and virtues is called morality and its discourse is called ethics (formerly philosophy).

People have not always considered the same values as important and guiding. Values are therefore subject to change, just as social developments at large. Since the beginning of industrialization, the change in values has been roughly divided into three phases (see Norbert Bolz: Wertwandel):

  • With the rise of the bourgeoisie, Christian values have become accentuated bourgeois values and virtues (basically work and pray). Such values are still looked at as part of primary values.
  • With the onset of Romanticism around 1800, resistance to the bourgeoisie and its values were raising. A boom in anti-bourgeois values began (the beginning of non-conformism). This era strengthened in the 60s of the 20th century to phase out the aging of the so called 68s generation.
  • The 21st century sees more ambivalent values. A strongly situational attitude to values seems to surface. There is talk of value paradoxes or value hybrids. What has been considered as incompatible in the previous epoch now paves the way of dealing with values (for example, in compassionate conservativism, caring capitalism, or libertarian paternalism). Whether this is actually a differentiation of the understanding of values – or the ultimate sell-out of society – will be revealed.

Values are the bases of behavioural rules, but not rules by themselves. However, social norms (concrete rules for behaviour within society) can be derived from values. Such normative rules sets the frame of societal behaviour. They therefore have a prescriptive character and function as group stabilizers. Values have an attractive, norm a restrictive character. The observance of norms is “launched by the negative consequences of its non-observance”.

It is precisely such stabilizing role of norms that seems to be lacking today. Values are reduced to what is beneficial (individually). We are not the first epoch (and most likely will not be the last) that tries to promote value utilitarianism. Of value is what is beneficial for the majority. Would such principle not refer to sustainability being today’s value No. 1? But it does not! Time for a reflection on values? What are values and how do we relate?

Because not all values are considered equal, so-called hierarchies of values are created. The balancing of a value happens in a situation bound and / or culture frame. This makes it clear that the system of all values is not without contradiction. When values collide and compete with other values, we speak of a conflict of values. A good example of this is the propagated value of prosperity, which conflicts with the value of sustainability or the value of individual freedom colliding with the value of equality. However, careful consideration shows that such conflicts are often based on mixing up time and abstraction. If sustainability is ignored in favour of (short-term) prosperity in the long term, the lack of sustainability destroys prosperity. If the terms sustainability and prosperity remain abstract, they can be (ab)used against each other easily. If they are concretized, there is a real chance of connectivity. Sustainability – not using more than can regenerate in a given period – becomes the prosperity principle of a healthy society (instead of worshipping financial excess, which is what is actually hidden behind prosperity). So we leave the abstract plane and become concrete. And so we come to the question why working with values in communication which I will address in the second part.