Conflicting Values

In the latest issue of The Atlantic, writer and scientist Alison Gopnik lays out the basis for one of the greatest and most unacknowledged value conflicts in American life – the conflict between family/community and higher-level professional success. She doesn’t quite put it that way because she’s exploring the associated problem of contempt, and why those who value family and community are contemptuous of those who place a higher value on professional success while a large segment of the “professional” class, especially scientists, academics, and creative artists, are at least equally contemptuous of those who exalt home, family, religion, and community above professional success and values and all they entail.

Although I never quite thought of it in those terms, my brother and I, while sharing many political views, are on opposite sides in prioritizing what is and has been most important in our lives. That’s not to say that we both weren’t ambitious, yet, in the end, we somehow switched priorities along the way. I certainly started out more in the traditional mold, serving as a Naval officer as had my father and grandfather and then returning to Denver and preparing to go to law school in order to join my father’s law firm, while my brother, upon graduation from college, took a job with a large and prestigious multinational financial institution. Three years later, he was back in Denver, if still in the financial area, where he has remained ever since. He’s the one who holds the family traditions dearest, and who, to some degree, sacrificed opportunities to remain part of a community he has always valued.

While I valued, and still do, family, I found that I could not accept the “legal” tradition, decided against law school, and then discovered that there was no way to provide for a growing family, to write, and, frankly, to make something more of myself while remaining in Denver at that time. My opportunities, such as they were, lay in the staff side of politics and in Washington, D.C. My wife, the professional singer and voice and opera professional, found that she could not succeed in her field without frequent moves and often great inconvenience, not if she wanted to remain involved in music on a professional level. Those conflicts led to both of us ending up single, meeting years later, and marrying.

Whether most people want to acknowledge it or not, professional success in many fields often entails and sometimes demands relocations and moves. Professionals and others who make those moves are effectively prioritizing their professional beliefs and values above the traditional model of a lifetime close to family and in the same community. There are also other conflicts that arise as well.

For example, when industries change, traditionalists don’t like the idea of having to move to find a job, because not only is there the strain of unemployment, but also the strain of losing community and family support.

There is no single absolute “right” way to prioritize one’s life; that has to depend on the individual. The problem today is that most people and most politicians don’t recognize that there is an unrecognized and growing rift between “traditionalists” and those whose lives are, for lack of a better term, “professionally values oriented.” The “contempt” problem that Gopnik addresses arises from the fact that each group, either consciously or unconsciously, believes that its priorities should be the basis for government, when, in a modern high-tech world, government needs to accept and recognize both sets of priorities, at least to the degree that neither group’s priorities should be imposed by law upon the other, except in cases of public safety.

5 thoughts on “Conflicting Values”

  1. M. Kilian says:

    I have been carefully trying to form an opinion based on two such conflicting sets of values, though I’m not sure whether I’m on the same tangent- I dub them as “tribal values” versus “urban values”. Reading your take on Alison’s piece does make me feel like it’s at least similar.

    For the tribal set of values, there’s the assumed importance of survival, wherein things like family, community, religion and conformity in general. On the other hand, urban values endorse “loftier” goals with survival firmly established such as liberty, egalitarianism, individualism and perhaps self-expression in general.

    In the context of profession, one might observe that the more tribal-minded person may pick a job in the community at cost to their ambitions in order to secure stability. Whereas perhaps the more urban-minded person may move extensively in order to pursue their desired career at cost to their inclusion in a community.

    While my examples may just be generalisations, the dissonance that occurs in the co-existence of mutually exclusive fundamental values is bound to generate contempt if not worse, I think.

  2. Tom says:

    The “contempt” we discuss is based on jealousy of our inability to successfully be family based and professional. The fact that we humans are always after more than we are capable of. The major difference is that of being king of our family compared to being Leader of our nation. We often fail in being happy with what we have achieved – such is what we are as humans. Personal and societal problems arise when we actively seek to diminish others to satisfy the impossibility of being king of all we have and have not. I sympathize because I am old enough to have been there.

  3. Hanneke says:

    Sorry for the late reaction, but I’ve been thinking about this since I read it.

    I recognise the two mindsets, family-focused versus career-focused. I do not recognise the contempt of these mindsets, each for the other, that you describe, in my own surroundings; though I can see it in the things from the USA I read on the internet.

    This has made me think, that perhaps the contempt you see as nearly inevitable might be a function of the culture and the physical surroundings, most potently the (local/regional) population density.

    I live in northwest Europe (the Netherlands), where the culture is such that many laws and regulations support a balance between work and family life.
    There is generous maternity and parental leave, and (half)paid leave to deal with family-emergencies (the first 3 days per year are fully paid); good and affordable healthcare for everyone (independent of one’s employer so switching jobs does not create problems – and to illustrate what I mean by affordable: I’m over 50 with 2 mild chronic illnesses that require me to take medicines daily, and I pay €155 for full health care coverage per month with a €385 yearly maximum on copays; this includes extra dental coverage, glasses, extra physiotherapy and a few more extras; people are grumbling about the costs rising each year since the government turned the general single-payer Medicaid system into a marketbased insurers system), paid sick leave, a good social safety net for people with disabilities or who lose their jobs, financial support for daycare depending on your income; 4 weeks of paid vacation leave per year; minimum wages that are living wages so that nobody needs to work three jobs just to pay the rent; rent control and housing support for low-income households when rents in an area are too high for them; and the right to work part-time unless the employer can prove that to do so would be impossible.

    The result is that a majority of professional people choose to work part time, mostly four days a week (32 hours, though three days or 27 hours is not unusual, especially with young kids in the family: if both parents each work 3 days on different days, the kids don’t need daycare) and spend the other days with their families. This is not seen as something that would be detrimental to their careers: highpaid lawyers and doctors and bankers and such all do so. The standard work week is 36 hours, and people tend to be just as productive as they were when the standard week was 40 hours.
    Nobody blinks an eye at a high-powered lawyer having his daddy-day every wednesday.

    This makes combining an ambition to further your career with wanting to be available to and spend time with your family much easier, as long as jobs are available in your profession in your area.
    This is where the population density kicks in.

    In a densely populated area like the Netherlands (or the US coasts), all kinds of career opportunities are available within a reasonable commuting time. Thus nobody *has* to move far away from family in order to pursue a career.
    Om the other hand, in large areas with low-density populations lots of kinds of jobs will not be available.
    An opera singer living near the center of the Netherlands would be within about a 2 hour commute from almost *all* the opera houses available to a population of over 16 million (I think there’s one on an island for which you might have to add a half-hour ferry ride to those two hours).
    This is something which would probably be impossible in the sparsely populated center of the USA – not enough large agglomerations to support opera houses which could support a cast of professional singers and aspiring singer-pupils living within commuting distance.
    Hence the need, in the USA, to move away from family in order to pursue a career, if that career needs a larger population base than is available in the area of your birth.

    This in turn leads to the perceived sharp dichotomy between family-focused and career-focused people.

    While my experience in the Netherlands seems to indicate that career-focused individuals *also* like to invest time and attention in their families, if they can do so without being penalised for it. This means that the divide is much less great, and hence the contempt is not at all prevalent.

    1. Hanneke says:

      Sorry, i meant opt-in Medicaid/Medicare above, not entirely single payer: we’ve always had a hybrid system of medical insurance, but with at least one very large single government payer able to negotiate the prices for essentials (both medical and dental) down. As anyone who wanted could choose to insure their medical costs through this “ill people fund” (our combination of Medicare and Medicaid), the prices for private insurance for those same essentials could not grow too high either or lose customers, though they could compete by offering additional insurance for elective procedures and alternative treatments or medicines. Medical insurance is mandatory but for anyone on a low income there is financial assistance available; it used to be that anyone on any kind of welfare was insured automatically with the government paying the cost, but now those people can opt out and choose a private insurance, and pay the cost difference themselves.
      Since the “ill people fund” was privatised, the government has to put out a tender for the lowest-bidding medical insurance company every few years, to get the government contract to fullfil that Medicaid+Medicare function. This was done under the flag of “capitalism makes everything cheaper by causing competition and increasing efficiency”, but the result has been prices growing (10-15 years ago I used to pay €700 a year with €100 copays yearly maximum, instead of €1860 and €385 copays) and a small decrease in what’s covered. Not too much, as the government still sets minimum standards and has some negotiating clout, but things like 10 instead of 12 physiotherapy treatments per year before you have to negotiate an extension or pay the rest yourself.
      The insurance companies have grown too large and too powerful under the new liberal system, and as they are commercial companies aiming for more profit they put hospitals under pressure to cut costs, and try to limit their customers’ options in order to minimize their expenditures. Our liberal-leaning government thought those savings would be handed on to the consumers in lower insurance payments, but that’s not how it works out in practise: in reality the big insurance firms pocket the profits or pay them out to their investors. Non-profit government insurance was much more focused on keeping the costs to the taxpayers down while affording everyone all the essential healthcare and dental care they needed.

  4. Hanneke says:

    Sorry, i meant opt-in Medicaid/Medicare above, not entirely single payer: we’ve always had a hybrid system of medical insurance, but with at least one very large single government payer able to negotiate the prices for essentials (both medical and dental) down. As anyone who wanted could choose to insure their medical costs through this “ill people fund” (our combination of Medicare and Medicaid), the prices for private insurance for those same essentials could not grow too high either or lose customers, though they could compete by offering additional insurance for elective procedures and alternative treatments or medicines. Medical insurance is mandatory but for anyone on a low income there is financial assistance available; it used to be that anyone on any kind of welfare was insured automatically with the government paying the cost, but now those people can opt out and choose a private insurance, and pay the cost difference themselves.
    Since the “ill people fund” was privatised, the government has to put out a tender for the lowest-bidding medical insurance company every few years, to get the government contract to fullfil that Medicaid+Medicare function. This was done under the flag of “capitalism makes everything cheaper by causing competition and increasing efficiency”, but the result has been prices growing (10-15 years ago I used to pay €700 a year with €100 copays yearly maximum, instead of €1860 and €385 copays) and a small decrease in what’s covered. Not too much, as the government still sets minimum standards and has some negotiating clout, but things like 10 instead of 12 physiotherapy treatments per year before you have to negotiate an extension or pay the rest yourself.
    The insurance companies have grown too large and too powerful under the new liberal system, and as they are commercial companies aiming for more profit they put hospitals under pressure to cut costs, and try to limit their customers’ options in order to minimize their expenditures. Our liberal-leaning government thought those savings would be handed on to the consumers in lower insurance payments, but that’s not how it works out in practise: in reality the big insurance firms pocket the profits or pay them out to their investors. Non-profit government insurance was much more focused on keeping the costs to the taxpayers down while affording everyone all the essential healthcare and dental care they needed.

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