“Competing Contemporary Values: Traditional, Modern, Radical Postmodern and Transmodern”

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When Did Postmodernity Begin and What New Values Did It Bring?

I believe that the 20th century experience of the dual success/failure of the modern project-which assumed that technological progress leads to humanistic progress–cannot be underestimated.  The horrors of The Great War and the Holocaust were made possible, were only possible, because of the progressive advances of modern society.   Our noses were brutally rubbed in the reality that not only were we not yet gods, we were never going to be gods.  Moderns were shocked to find that the world’s wisdom (1 Corinthians 3:19) contributed not just to the defense of the good and the innocent but to the evil angel’s  efficacy.  The specter of that failure haunts the children of the 21st century, our students.  Little wonder that they often seem to trust only a small circle of friends.

More pragmatically, a massive body of work by Ronald Inglehart of the University of Michigan suggests that as physical and economic security was realized in the decades following WWII for a large majority in Europe and North America and elsewhere in the developed world, the personal values of many people began in turn increasingly-especially for the young, for whom such security was normal-to shift upward in Maslow’s hierarchy to such “higher” values as quality of life, privacy, choice, animal rights, toleration and the environment (Box 1).

Box 1

  • “Environmentalism,” i.e., environmental well-being as a worldview, including such “primary” values as animal rights,  e.g., “…(journalists) know that a story about cruelty to animals will today always getbigger reaction than one about cruelty to children” (Humphreys 2006);
  • the “right to die”/”death with dignity”;
  • “quality-of-life”/lifestyle (with at least an implied threat to the worth of those too incomplete/impaired/weak to live a full life of sufficient “quality”);
  • privacy;
  • the subjective and the personal over the objective and the universal;
  • toleration, diversity and inclusivity;
  • gay/ethnic/indigenous rights;
  • psychological satisfaction, including meaningful life goals, developing into one’s best self, self-validation, personal spirituality, personal authenticity; and, above all; personal autonomy and choice.

Meanwhile, older collective values-the assumption of marriage and children as essential to happiness is one clear example-ebbed just as quickly.  Leszek Kolakowski calls this the “death of taboos” (Kolakowski 1990).  In fact, human-centered values associated with individual autonomy in particular ascended so conspicuously and completely that it might fairly be argued that they triggered the larger cultural shift: in postmodernity at least, values may have led worldview instead of vice versa.

Thus, for example, while privacy as a fundamental personal value often seemed to elders living in the latter half of the twentieth century to have been invented almost overnight, to have sprung up out of thin air, to many or even most people who grew up during that same period its primacy was obvious.   (Ironically, just as privacy became self-evidently “sacred” many observers argue persuasively that privacy is already technologically obsolete, archaic, as much a thing of the past as maypoles and girdles [Froomkin 2000].)

This transformation to “postmodern” worldview and values unfolded so rapidly, and so completely, that, at least until the tragedy of 9/11, its not-so-eventual triumph seemed guaranteed.  Although that outcome, like Fukuyama’s proposed “end of history,” may no longer be assured, our research demonstrates that at least in the developed world the momentum and urge to “higher” values like choice continues to gather pace.