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 didn’t curse. Couples didn’t 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. It’s 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 society’s values. This is generally a good thing. Traditional social values are usually put in place for practical reasons. For example, if you don’t allow young people to have sex unless they’re 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 don’t 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 isn’t true (read more about the venting theory here).
These impulses — to have sex out of wedlock or beat someone when you’re 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. Let’s 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 West’s system of social values. People were afraid the social order would unravel if Galileo’s 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 their potentials.
We can see now that women should have the right to do this because they’re human beings and it’s only fair that they have rights equal to men. If it upturns society’s values, so be it. The intellectual value is more important and should trump social values when the two conflict.
But that doesn’t 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. That’s 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, it’s hard to put your finger on it.
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 hell.
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 didn’t invent these distinctions. I got them from Robert Pirsig’s excellent book, Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals.
To see a good illustration of these principles, watch the movie, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. You’ll 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 didn’t 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.
Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Slotralogy, Antivirus For Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.