Posted by Jay Livingston
The word values has become pretty much the property of conservatives, who take an absolutist position. Values tell us what’s right and wrong, and by God some things are just wrong. Abortion, gay marriage, Al Qaeda. And some things are just right. The War on Terrorism, Freedom, Democracy.
This view is neatly summed up in William Bennet’s phrase “moral clarity,” which stands strong against the wishy-washy liberal view called moral relativism. Sheesh, don’t get conservatives started on moral relativism. Here’s a guy on Glenn Beck’s show:
a certain segment of society who has been indoctrinated with a certain moral relativism. . . . And it quite frankly puts our civilization in danger.Here’s Bill Bennet himself:
Most Republicans believe there are such things as objective values, things we can arrive at through reason, and discussion, and experience, and faith . . . A lot of liberals are still suffering from the relativism of the '60s and '70s. [Nice word choice – “suffering.”]But for the past year HSBC has been banking on cultural relativism with their Different Values ad campaign.
Some of the ads give a pair of value-laden words (good, bad) with a picture for each. Then the pictures are switched. Papaya - good; chocolate cake - bad. Or is it the reverse? Same words, different pictures.
Other ads show the same picture, but with different value labels. What idea is triggered by this old convertible – Freedom? Status Symbol? Polluter?
(I especially like this one. Is having four kids the self-indulgence that comes with privilege, or is it sacrifice?)
The idea, neatly summed up in the tag line of the original ads is, “different values make the world a richer place.” OK, let’s forget about the intentional double meaning of richer. And maybe we should temporarily ignore the hypocrisy of HSBC, having gobbled up local banks, now coming out as the promoter of local values.
What the ad illustrates – and this is how I’ll use them in class next week when we start talking about culture – is the idea of culture as a “meaning system.” What something means depends on the culture of the people interpreting it – as in the shaved head ad.
Those interpretations are based in experience, and the experiences we have depend on where we are in the society – as in the computer/baby ad.
Or the carpet ad.
(Can we still call them “Oriental” rugs? I guess it depends on our culture. But if we can’t call them Oriental rugs, what are they?)
UPDATE. A few hours after I posted this yesterday, I went to Brooklyn for dinner with friends. Getting out of the subway, I glanced back at the skyline of Manhattan, the island much glorified (by some), much vilified (by others), and much gentrified. Then I started up Montague St., and one of the first things I passed was an HSBC bank with this ad inside.