Thursday, November 13, 2014

“Every difference in opinion is not a difference in principle": Dr. Wayne Baker clarifies how American society can have so many misunderstandings when we say we believe in the same things

Last Sunday, the Race Relations & Diversity Task Force at the Birmingham Community House hosted an eye-opening presentation by Dr. Wayne Baker, about the ten core values a large majority of Americans have in common.

Dr. Baker’s premise is to provide an alternative to the divisive tendency of both the popular media and contemporary social research: While pointing out that living up to a value does not always go hand in hand with professing to believe in it, Dr. Baker’s focus is on emphasizing points we agree on, to promote civil dialogue rather than debate. He explains it is much easier to foster understanding and cooperation if we start with positives than it is to try and generate respectful dialogue and action from a conversation about negative ideas and what divides us.

In keeping with this approach, his exploration of these ten core values is intended to stoke people’s critical thinking skills in the direction of evaluating for themselves what these values mean to them. The material he presented is from his recently-published book,
United America.

Dr. Baker partnered with
U of M’s Institute for Social Research (ISR) to conduct a two-year study to identity the ten core values that a majority of Americans hold in common.

The ten core values Dr. Baker and his research team identified are:
- Respect for others
- Symbolic patriotism (the emotional connection to patriotic imagery and other cultural and historical representations of national pride)
- Freedom (specifically, freedom of expression)
- Security
- Self-reliance (American insistence on independence rather than interdependence)
- Equal opportunity (of race, religion, gender, etc.)
- Getting ahead (competition)
- The pursuit of happiness
- Justice
- Critical patriotism (criticizing the government, media, and popular culture out of a desire for the U.S. to live up to its claim to be a good role model for the world)

The criteria for what constitutes a core value are that it is widely-shared by the majority of the population with no large neutral contingent, and is stable over time—meaning, it does not change with the socio-political era. The study found little regional or political difference among the ten values. Many of those that didn’t make the list—including religion and values about marriage and family—are split along political, regional, or other demographic lines; others are split more or less equally regardless of demographic factors.

To help people understand how American society can have so many social, political, and cultural problems when we say we believe in the same things, Dr. Baker quoted Thomas Jefferson: “Every difference in opinion is not a difference in principle.” What this means is that we can agree on a particular value, but disagree in how to apply it in our lives. For example, what is perceived as well-meaning critical patriotism to some people is denounced by others as treason.

Dialogue is a big emphasis of Dr. Baker’s, both in his presentations and in his writing. This helps his audience connect with and critically think about the message he’s conveying, rather than just passively receive the information and only process it on an intellectual level. He led us in an exercise involving 100 photos, which are available on his
Our Values Web page for free download with instructions on how to do the exercise in your own group. Each person was to select one image; then, we discussed with the group why we chose the images we did.

Listening to other people’s descriptions of what images they selected was a good reminder about empathy: It’s so easy to get jaded by commercialized uses of patriotic symbols and messages and frustrated by a society that emphasizes warfare over peacemaking, that it’s good to have reminders all patriots aren’t ethno-centrists and all people who feel emotional stirrings upon seeing military imagery don’t support wars. One participant chose the image of a saluting Naval officer because her father was in the Navy, and another participant chose an image of an American flag above a sports field because it reminded her of when she played that sport as a child, and always saw an American flag flying over the field.

“The same image might mean different things to different people,” Baker said, “But it’s the same image.”

Speaking of the military, his daily blog posts this week are in honor of Veterans Day, highlighting some important differences in well-being and social outlook between civilians and veterans. His Monday post introduced the results of a study which measured the level of emotional well-being of civilians versus that of military active duty and veterans—His teaser-trailer was that we’d be surprised by the results! Check out the
“Our Values” Web page to read his daily posts about values and ethics. His writing is concise and informative, and he always ends with a question inviting dialogue from his readers.

Dr. Baker would really like to repeat his values study around the world. It would be interesting to see how different the results would be, since the U.S. is unusually traditional compared to other developed nations.


Dr. Wayne Baker is an author, blogger, sociologist, and Professor of Business Administration at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. He and his colleagues teach classes about “the people side of business, not the financial and the marketing” aspects. “We teach classes about values and virtues” in business practice, he said, which include such topics as ethical decision-making and positive business culture. “How you get those positive results”—e.g., profit—“matters just as much,” he says, in sharp contrast to the more-common business model of “The ends justify the means.”
Illustration by Karla Joy Huber, 2004; marker, colored pencil, watercolor, metallic gel pen, flower petal

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