American values are a tricky thing. It seems that the value set changes with each individual. “American pragmatism is actually rooted in deeply held anti-authoritarian, individualistic, egalitarian, activist ideals, which privilege personal choice, flexibility, and technical efficiency with the pursuit of success, however success is defined.” (Hall, Lindholm, pg. 91) Basically, an individual’s values are what that individual decides they are. The key to understanding this is realizing that above almost all else, Americans prize, value, and recognize the sacredness of being an individual. Certainly there are basic expectations of all people living in American society regardless of how the individual feels they must recognize that they exist in the U.S. with a billion “individuals.”
Americans seem to think ” . . . that ‘nice’ people of good will, as all true Americans are assumed to be, ought to be able to reach a compromise and keep the social peace. Those who keep on refusing the path of compromise are castigated as trouble-makers, demagogues, and even un-American.” (Lipset, pg. 44) The rules are simple. I am an individual trying to exist with lots of other individuals and we are all trying not to kill one another and still live a satisfying existence. But, how does understanding the situation affect how I choose to live? It is still up to me to decide whether or not I will steal a dress from a store, purchase it with cash, or pay for it with a credit card. What do I value most, freedom – assuming I get caught stealing the dress, outright ownership of something I can buy or willingness to owe someone for something I cannot currently afford? Unfortunately understanding that I am an individual and am responsible for creating the list of what values I will abide by does not make living by my values any easier.
I feel as if I live my life trying to find a balance between two worlds that overlap in some ways and will never touch in others. “The United States has numerous religious, racial, and ethnic groups as well as countless interest groups . . .. This state of affairs makes the job of specifying U.S. values difficult.” (Henslin, pg. 46) I live now, and will eventually work, in what is recognized as traditional white male America. The rules are fairly clear-cut and easy to understand. Work hard at an important job, earn lots of money to buy lots of nice things, and if you ever have any doubts or questions, check the data because science has proven everything.
However, I am also saddled with knowing that these rules do not hold true in every situation. I have had the joy of knowing that money means nothing, that accepting what is given to you naturally by way of family or talent is enough to satisfy, and that there are many things that occur within the realm of nature that there are no explanations for and you just have to believe.
The conflict lies in the fact that one value I hold in one instance is perfectly countered by what I hold important in another. I cannot possibly satisfy living up to all of my values all of the time because each set aspires to different goals. So I live my life by trying to meet each thing I come to with the understanding that I may have to change my plan midstream because I judged the situation incorrectly. I have to accept that my values have to be flexible enough for me exist in the two world I have chosen to be in my life. I cannot allow myself to feel like I am betraying on ideal for another because each might be able to exist separately. Sometimes I have to choose between “Native” Rebecca and “White” Rebecca. I am racially fully native, but culturally and even ethnically, I am of mixed “blood” – both native and white, and am constantly faced with internal prejudice. What is right for me in one instance is not acceptable in another.
For instance, when I go home to visit family on the Tuscarora Indian Reservation I have to remember where I am because my ways of behaving here in Virginia are very different from how I behave in Lewiston, New York. My “Virginia” self has no problem going out and asking someone for help or support and expecting an immediate response. This is because in that system of values I am responsible for going and getting what I need. I expect to find what I need exactly when I need it and I expect to be able to have access to it, assuming of course that I can afford it.
On the reserve, it is not about having access to something and certainly not about being able to afford it. I would never cross the street and ask a neighbor for something, even if I could pay for it. First of all, it would be a great insult to pay for something that someone does not generally sell because I am not allowing her to give to me. Secondly, I would be insulting the person that I would go to because she was irresponsible for not noticing that I had a need. This could be from the obvious, my house in on fire, to the subtle, my telephone is out and my neighbor has a cell phone. The focus here is not on getting what you need but that what you need is being provided to you by the people that you provide for. My neighbor knows I am sick without me calling her and she sends her daughter with corn soup for my entire family. I know a cousin down the road is short on food money this week so I send my niece to my cousin’s house with some of the soup my neighbor gave me. My neighbor works all week so my cousin cleans her house for a few dollars to make ends meet. All of these negotiations occur without anyone actually saying, “I need.” The values are not focused on the individual but rather a single greater value rises, the community is expected to behave like a community.
So, if having or not having money on the reservation is a non-issue why am I working hard in college to work in a field renowned for its high paying jobs? An additional conflict within the value system that I have created for myself involves my perception and appreciation of money. On one hand, it is important to me to work hard and earn a good living. On the other hand, I feel like I should be happy that I have a beautiful child, I am healthy, with a sound mind, and to ask for more is simply selfish. I have three brothers and three sisters. One brother graduated from Notre Dame’s School of Architecture. One sister graduated from Buffalo University with a degree in Finance. I am working on a degree in Management Information Systems. We obviously did not choose these fields because they were community focused. We chose these professions because we could earn a lot of money in the fields and we want to have lots of money. Does this mean money has replaced the value of being satisfied with little or accepting what you have and being happy with that? No. Money does not substitute vales. It simply puts the values to the test.
One of my sisters is too young to be included in this example, but I have two brothers and another sister that combined earn less than I will when I start working. That is slightly unfair to say because my one sister is not working and instead stays home to care for her child. But the point is, she prefers spending her time at home over working because her needs are being met. She is happy with what she has. My two brothers work construction and only work seven months out of the year, winters are harsh in the Buffalo, NY area where they work. They all live at home so housing and food is provided.
The conditions for the room and board are simple, without asking the dishes are always washed, the water is always full, the garbage is always taken to the road Tuesday mornings, in the summer the lawn is mowed, and the pool is maintained. For seven months out of the year, they earn enough money to buy all the beer they can drink, a few nice presents for their current women and keep themselves in clean clothes. Five months out of the year, my brothers live as paupers, no money, old clothes, and no women because they have no money. But if you asked my brothers if they disliked the five months that they had no money they would look at you as if you were speaking a foreign language. Why do they need money? They have a warm place to sleep, food to eat, and their family, what else do they need? If they want a beer they go visit a friend and get it there, for certainly during the summer months that friend will be at our house drinking my brothers’ beer.
So, if money is of little consequence to half of my family why does it seem to have such a big impact on the other half? My brother, sister, and I are not any smarter than the siblings that chose not to go to school are. Why was it important to us to educate ourselves and increase our earning potential? It is not based on ages as we are the eldest, middle, and youngest. It could be personality. We are most like our mother. When she married her husband she told him that he would never earn enough money to buy her the things she like so he would have to be okay with her going to work. He agreed and it was simply a part of our family. Did my mother value money over her other communal values. No.
In fact our family has contributed greatly to the community because as we prosper so should the people around us. My brother designed a building for a community charitable organization and gave them the design for free, something that would cost thousands of dollars. My sister helped work out the finances of the health clinic to arrange for them receive more funding because past filings were inaccurate and low. I do not know yet what my impact back home will be. But I am certain that my help will be needed as computers come into the Indian school and into the homes of the people on the reservation. It is not a matter of recognizing money as a value on its own or replacing other values. It is a matter of knowing the values I live by and how I can ethically earn what I want, live in the manner I want and still abide by the self that needs to help my community. As long as I can maintain that balance and freely acknowledge what I earn without being self-conscious, I know that I am maintaining myself ethically with my finances. When I have to withhold what I earn from those around me, it is most likely because somehow, I have shorted the people that are closest to me and I know that I did not have to.
There are some principles that exist regardless of how or where you live in the United States. You do not steal, you do not lie, you do not kill, you pay your taxes, and you eventually die. There are certainly exceptions to all of those, except the latter, but for the most part those are rules you simply avoid breaking if you want to be considered ethical. If you do not abide by those simple ethical guidelines may people will regard you with distrust. It seems at times that people are abandoning these ideals on a personal level; but those same people expect American society on the whole to live according to these standards. Whether or not these ideals are based on traditional Protestant standards does not seem to matter anymore as many people in the U.S. are neither traditional nor Protestant. These basic rules seem to transcend all religious, racial and ethnic boundaries are all equally recognized as something that someone can and at least probably should live by. As much as we like to think that as Americans we are unique in this great world we are not.
I began early in this paper saying that I exist in two worlds and try to maintain myself equally well in both world. If the truth is told, everyone exists in many worlds and it does not matter if you are American, Austrian, or Australian. There are still women from small towns working in big towns, there are mothers that work, and mothers that stay home (they work too – but the point is they two exist in separate worlds). The world is most definitely getting smaller. This allows two things to happen. One, with the incredible growth of the Internet, people are able to connect to other individuals that live, work, or think just like them. Individuals are finding that they are not unique and American seem to be okay with that. American individualism is not solely American and there are many Americans that work much better in a collective environment. With the ability to connect world wide it will not matter where you live but how you want to live. There will most certainly be a level of cultural leveling as one culture moves towards another and they come to compromise. Of course that fits in with how I began, ” . . . reach a compromise and keep the social peace.” (Lipset, pg. 44)
There are always going to be those that resist the changes that are inevitable. “When people cherish some set of values and do not feel any threat to them, they experience well-being. When they cherish values but do feel them to be threatened, they experience crisis.” (Mills, pg. 25) We as Americans will always be different from the rest of the world that is certain, but the differences will become less obvious and will most likely become a social quirk as other countries take on American appearances and as we take on more people from other nations.
We will find ourselves comparing us to other countries. Are we more high tech, or are we more fashionable, are we healthier or prettier than country X? The lines will blur but as it is now we probably are more high tech than most other nations. But I do not think I can say that we are more fashionable, healthier, or prettier. But how does this relate to values in other nations? It comes down to what we have focused our attentions on as a nation. As a group, we have moved towards an information-based society, putting the highest economic worth on knowledge. We ascertain our wealth by what we know and what we can do with what we know. We feel better about ourselves when we have reached understanding about our situations. That is part of the American value system. Other nations, such as Japan, while being technology and information driven, put much more focus on tangibles than being satisfied with knowing. Americans are obviously obsessed with buying and buying expensive items but the greater focus is on how to improve what we have or how to get more from it. That is how is has always been for Americans, from the American Revolution to “settling” the west to Silicon Valley. As far as I can tell, it will always be this way. There will simply be more and more people like myself, trying to live up to standards based on two different realms of reality. I do not believe it will be a matter of sacrificing one value for another, rather it will be one foot firmly planted in each. It is compromise, it is American.
Henslin, James M. Essentials of Sociology: A Down-to-Earth Approach. Allyn and Bacon.
Lipset, S.M. American Exceptionalism: A Double Edged Sword. New York: Norton Press.
1959. 1987. (Anthologized by Henslin, James M. in Down to Earth Sociology. Allyn and