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I’m unselfish; you’re selfish

People believe themselves to hold unselfish values but, due to media and politics, inaccurately that others hold selfish ones

Equality of outcome, sustainability, accountability. Village does wear its values on its sleeve. Media are in the business of communicating values. What makes Village different, however, is both being explicit about its values and the particular values it espouses. Values matter and the manner in which we address values is central to any ambition for social change. The issue merits a lot more attention among those who seek such change.

The Common Cause Foundation in England has led a rethink on the centrality of values to effective work on environmental, global-justice, anti-poverty and many of the big issues facing civilisation. Its recent publication, ‘Perceptions Matter’ highlights some startling conclusions that should be further informing this work. The research was based on a survey of a thousand people in Britain.

People were asked what they valued in life. The researchers looked at groups of ‘compassion’ values like ‘helpfulness’, ‘equality’ and ‘protection of nature’; and “selfish” values such as ‘wealth’, ‘public image’ and ‘success’. It found that 74% of respondents afford greater importance to compassionate values than to selfish values, irrespective of age, gender, region, or political persuasion. That has to be a more than promising start for social change in Britain.

It is the second finding that is the most striking and much less promising. It found that 77% of respondents believe that their fellow citizens hold selfish values to be more important, and compassionate values to be less important, than is actually the case. People who hold this inaccurate belief about other people’s values, the research found, feel significantly less positive about getting involved in action for change, feel a high level of social alienation, and feel less responsible for their communities.

How does the apparent majority holding values of equality and sustainability end up alienated to the extent that they don’t give expression to these values? This must be a concern for those in civil society espousing progress. How does a majority get to feel that its values don’t fit in? Yes…it does go back to the fact that we are repeatedly told by the media, by politicians, and even by our educational institutions that these ‘selfish’ values are dominant in and most important to our society.

The Common Cause survey supports this explanation. It asked people what values they felt were encouraged by key types of institution: arts and culture, schools and universities, the media, Government and business. It found that people believe that each of these institutions discourage “compassionate” values, and encourage “selfish” values. That is why it is important to wear our values on our sleeves. Take a bow, Village.

Values matter.

Values motivate what we do and think, as individuals. Values shape what organisations prioritise, and the way they go about their business. The values that dominate in a society or in an organisation block or enable the change we seek for a more equal, sustainable and accountable world. Civil society seeking such a world needs to be more attuned to activating the values it espouses and to better understanding how values work.

Earlier publications by the Common Cause Foundation have shown how important it is to explicitly engage people’s values such as equality, sustainability and accountability.

Social change is not about trying to change people’s values it is about triggering values they already hold. They tell us that values are universal. If we look across different cultures and countries, we will find the same set of values. They identify a list of some sixty repeatedly occurring values.

The Common Cause Foundation suggest that values are like muscles, the more we engage them the stronger they become. When our media, politics, and education system extensively engage values of self-interest, the stronger they become. The challenge to civil society becomes to expose and challenge this and to set about engaging people’s values of equality, sustainability and accountability to the same effective and extensive extent. This is a challenge, a cultural battle really, that we have not yet adequately taken up.

The Values Lab has recently been established in Ireland to bring this focus on values into an Irish setting.

It has set out to support and mentor organisations and networks to identify, engage and give expression to the values that enable them to more effectively address equality and human rights issues in their work. This is a useful start.

However, we need to see more civil society organisations developing a focus on values in their work for social change, more media outlets being explicit about their values, and a greater challenge to the values that block and distract from achieving equality, sustainability and accountability in Irish society.