In all cultures and in most people, there’s a difference between expressed values and operative values. Expressed values are the ones the come from our mouths and minds. Operative values are the ones that are expressed by the rest of our bodies. Expressed values are the ones we have—we always say that we have values (as if they were a commodity of some sort). Operative values are the ones we do, the ones we put to work. The word “operative” comes from the Latin “opus,” which means work. So our operative values are our working values, the ones we’re actually living in our everyday lives.
Because operative values are operationalized, they can be observed. We can see them in action (and in inaction, because some of our values require our passivity). We can look at our actual behavior, and consider the implicit values of common sense.
So what are some of the operative values of American culture? If an alien anthropologist arrived tomorrow, and didn’t know what we say about our values, what values would she see in our behavior?
One of the most important values in American culture is comfort. Americans expect to be comfortable. From the time that we’re born in the hospital and wrapped in blankets, and placed on a soft mattress in a climate-controlled room, we expect to be comfortable. Except for the homeless, almost all Americans live in houses that are climate-controlled (and also controlling the future climate of the planet), we enjoy the “comforts of home.” We go to sleep in our SelectComfort beds, and we wake up under a blanket called a comforter. We sit in furniture crafted for our comfort, and we eat “comfort foods.” We drive cars that keep us from the discomfort of powering our own mobility. And we apparently will do what it takes—including altering the biosphere of our planet and driving other creatures to extinction—to stay comfortable.
Usually, as Bill McKibben suggests in The Age of Missing Information, we don’t really value our comfort because we take it for granted. Indeed, he suggests, our comfort causes us discomfort because it screens us from pleasure. Comfort is a low-key, steady-state condition. But people are animals designed for sensory stimulation, and comfort doesn’t do that too well. Pleasure, McKibben suggests, comes from a high-intensity, immediate shift from a situation of discomfort to a situation of stimulus. This is why a hot shower after a week of backpacking is more pleasurable than the same shower on a normal day.
In addition to physical comfort, we also expect to be socially comfortable. We expect to get along and get ahead. We want to be agreeable companions for the people around us, and that means we don’t want to cause or experience discomfort. And that means, sadly, that we don’t talk about a lot of important issues. If we did, we might decide to redefine comfort with a value we might call “comfearth.” Comfearth would be the quantity and quality of comfort that’s consistent with the comfort of a planet with a biosphere. In the short run, we might have to wear more layers in the winter. We might have to sweat in the summer. We might have to use our legs for walking or biking. We might need to pay more for more efficient houses and cars and appliances. We might vote for a politicians who ask for sacrifice (a word well-known to religious people, but almost entirely absent from our political lexicon), and promise policies to enhance our comfearth. We might lose some of our creature comforts, but in the long run, we might take more comfort in knowing that we can live harmoniously with the rest of Earth’s creatures.