I've been thinking a lot about two extremes of values these days. I first started thinking about one extreme when I heard the new song by Marvin Gaye, "Sexual Feeling." As an artist, he is tops, but the sex mania message on that record is about as subtle as hardcore porn.
I have thought about values at the other extreme since seeing a play the other night at the Kreeger theater.
The play, entitled "Home," revolves around a man of the soil who demands of the future only his land and his love. But an idyllic period ends when his uncle and grandfather are killed, his girl goes away, and he is jailed for refusing to fight in Vietnam. After prison, he finds himself adrift. He decides to return to North Carolina, and confront his failures, and through his courage, he gets back his land and his love.
Mostly the play is about values, and in these days when form is emphasized over content in movies, plays, and theater, it is a rare occasion to look at a drama which possesses true values, even a profound morality.
When I first heard Gaye's song, I walked over to our daughter's radio and angrily snapped it off.
The song features Gaye singing to an engaging beat that has taken it to the top of the charts, "Sexual . . . sexual . . . sexual feeling is something that's good for you."
"Home" symbolizes a celebration of values and Gaye's song symbolizes an erosion of values.
But is it enough just to rant about the "decay" of moral values? Moral decay is a relative phrase.
Many of the social changes of the past two decades have been good. Easier divorce laws have been a boon in many cases and women's lives are no longer spent in subjugation. It's important that our physical and mental health concerns have risen dramatically.
Clearly the younger generation is not in search of an older generation's view of morality. But many of us have seen the world we once knew appear to flip over backwards. Sex, family, law, politics, things all around seem in transition and Americans have a tendency to throw out the baby with the bath water, to flex their muscles so the pendulum overswings.
Ten years ago, only 40 percent of American teens had sex by age 19. By 1980, it was 70 percent. And we see all around us the evidence that the pendulum has overswung.
We know that our young teens have been damaged by the sexual revolution of the past generation. We know that the institution of the family has been damaged by the spiraling divorce rate. The conventions that we fell back on in the past seem to work for fewer and fewer people.
It was in part, the concern with divorce and drugs, shifting sexual norms and morality that brought Ronald Reagan to the White House. But we know the answer is not the Rev. Jerry Falwell and reinstating school prayers. We cannot legislate social behavior. We know the answer is not to go back to a simpler place in time, but most of us seem stuck somewhere between yesterday and what's next.
Society is in transition due in part to technology, and this transformation carries with it a necessity to look at values. Nowhere can this be better seen than in our concepts of work.
Yesterday's value was that a person who was kind, ambitious and struggled to succeed, who did not shirk responsibility would get a job and have the option of climbing to the top. This has been totally undercut by what has happened in the economy.
Now the ladders are being removed. People who paid their dues according to the values of society are being booted out and there is massive unemployment.
Meanwhile, songs like Marvin Gaye's, with its sentimental love and sex for sale, its emphasis on immediate gratification and selfishness, symbolize one side of the coin. And by contrast the play "Home" -- where a man had the courage to return to confront and overcome his failures rather than walk away -- suggests a way in which we don't have to throw out everything and destroy what is good in order to prosper.
I think it is crucial that we begin seriously to address values. They determine our direction and the direction of our institutions.
Teaching ethics and values in families is urgent. Teaching ethics and values in our schools is another answer, but addressing the issue in the high and mighty places of our society must be a part of that examination as well.