Saturday, October 2, 2010

Assessing the core of 'Hoosier Values'

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, April 15, 2006

Two letters to the Tribune-Star last week were about “Hoosier values.” Both were satirical. It is rare to see anyone outside the clergy and some social scientists discuss “values” in anything like a meaningful manner today because such discussions are almost an automatic hot button issue. It shouldn’t be, but since the late 1970s and early 1980s “values” have been used to divide people along political lines. Doing so has made civil discussion of “values” that much more difficult.

Most people, unless they have really given careful thought to it, aren’t consciously aware of their values. We confuse beliefs with values all the time. Values refer to standards that people use as a reference point to help them evaluate behavior, things and ideas. Let’s take an easy example: freedom. Many people value freedom to the point they will die for it. Indeed, it is hard to find a person who doesn’t value freedom. Yet, people may differ on how best, as a society, to assure that we are free, so some see government as an inherent threat to our freedom and believe in limited government.

Others might view threats to freedom as coming from predatory individuals and thus believe government should actively defend our freedoms. Both beliefs stem from the same value.

Most people don’t adhere to just a single value. They have values. And nothing says that values must fit perfectly together. So, most Americans value freedom but hold different beliefs about how best to create and maintain it. Most Americans also value security. These two values can be seen rubbing against each other in our discussions about trying to balance freedom and security in the face of terrorism.

The current debate about immigration reflects a different emphasis on specific values. Many of those who oppose anything that could be considered amnesty do so not because of xenophobia or racism (as many detractors suggest), but because they value obedience to authority. The idea that lawbreakers, illegal aliens, could be rewarded with citizenship is just beyond their comprehension. Others valuing “compassion” are less concerned about rewarding lawbreakers and more about improving the lives of these desperate people.

I never heard of Florida or Virginia values when I lived there. Last week’s letter writers mocked the idea of “Hoosier values,” but as an observer for almost 20 years, if there even is a distinct set of values that could be called Hoosier, I’d have to include among them stability, particularism (I’ll explain in a bit), and humility and modesty.

Hoosiers value stability. This is why they resist change, even change that can be shown to be beneficial to them. I think most everyone prefers stability, very few really value change for change sake, but the Hoosier value of stability I think goes beyond just the common preference. I’m not sure I could explain here the high value Hoosiers place on stability, but suffice it to say that it leads to almost a knee-jerk suspicion of change. It is almost as though to change is to dishonor those in the past.

Particularism refers to treating people as unique individuals. It is the ideal of the small town where “everyone knows your name.” One is not treated as an anonymous customer or number. More traditional and rural cultures are rooted in particularism whereas more modern and urban cultures are more universalistic, treating people the same and more anonymously. Having a brother at the bank is an advantage in a particularistic culture but it matters little in a universalistic one. I think this is why things like zoning and high-stakes educational testing and standards are viewed so suspiciously here. I think it also is why there is uneasiness with things big in Indiana, from government to business. The value of particularism may be why the very idea of “Hoosier values” seems appealing to so many.

Lastly, humility and modesty are, however, often hard to distinguish from a lack of ambition and low expectations. For too many Hoosiers, it seems difficult to reconcile the values of humility and modesty with a willingness to demand better, whether of themselves or of their elected officials.

Someone wanting to flaunt their “Hoosier values” would be a multi-generation Hoosier following in a relative’s footsteps, be a quick study of people’s names and hometowns, and would be humble and modest emphasizing that all they needed to learn they learned in church, at grandma’s knee and playing ball.

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