Saturday, August 13, 2011

Consumer Society Runs Riot in England

Father Keith our American parish priest just back from a week with his parents in Texas,  said that he was celebrating 8am mass this morning for "peace and reconciliation in London". His words  and the mass provided more points for reflection on the recent widespread   hooliganism in England  and its possible causes.

I am most strongly against the idea of making the many positives of religious morality and teachings compulsory in this or any other country. Imposing  Islamic style Sharia  or Christian Inquisition-type laws on people to make them conform with the veneer of a religious belief is always counter-productive and subjugates rather than frees peoples.

Having said that there is no doubt that in England at least until the 1960s an  acceptance of mainly Anglican Christian ethos underlay most ordinary people's behaviour  to one another, themselves their families and the state. This was reflected in simple everyday life where the tendency was that of personal courtesy such as queuing  chivalrous behaviour by men and a tendency to frown on selfishness. Language such as "queue barging" "litter lout" "Common Law Wife", "spoilt"  "smug" or even "when in Rome do as the Romans do", tended to reflect people's instincts at the time about behaviour that breached the ingrained Christian understandings. To a large extent the law of the land tended to reflect such  instinctive standards so for example Sunday trading laws inhibited much commercial and consumer activity on Sundays upon the basis that that was a  day for church and rest. Today the shopping mall is for many in England the new Sunday temple.

In the   50s there was still  post WWII rationing in England which of course also precluded  the consumerism    so prevalent today. So by the end of the 1950s for good or ill  the christian heritage and post WWII strictures tended to influence the actions of  people on the streets and in government. they also tended to affect the way in which family life developed with the nuclear   family that is one with mainly married parents, still being  regarded as the norm. Taxation arrangements tended to underpin this type of family and on the whole albeit with the same kinds of difficulties that parents have always faced parental discipline of children in the family tended towards encouraging their  behaviour in line with the then prevailing (christian) ethos of society.

One of the  attributes of the world's great religions is that of personal obligation. Biblical studies are not my strong point but I understand that Moses was given the 10 commandments to hand down because mankind was/is too self centred to understand that ultimately loving one another causes more happiness for each  self than acting mainly to enrich oneself first does, hence the need for us to have a list of obligations to discharge to attain that  higher goal.. Essentially the Christian obligation is to love one's neighbour (which includes strangers) as oneself. I interpret that as meaning that sincere love of one's fellow human being rebounds as fully on one's own well being as on the neighbour's. Educating people to understand that however poses a huge challenge especially where individuals have been mainly exposed to the kind of culture which assumes me-first  is best and in which strangers are feared as people who are apt to make me-second.

The 1960s in England brought with them the end of post WII austerity and a trend of questing for self enrichment  predominating over sensitivity towards neighbour. Free love and flower power style of San Francisco was intoxicating for young people and their parents the WWII generation, embraced the ideas of  personal ownership and consumerism  - having endured so much comparative deprivation until then - for example by buying motor cars with ostentatious chrome  embellishments. Previously only the wealthy had been able to acquire so much.

Consumerism could be said really  to have been started by the wealthy/landed classes with the ripples they initiated having now reached out to those far less privileged than them. The consumerism of the 1960s was understandable given the years of   lack of  luxury that had just passed. However with the benefit of hindsight, what was needed by society at government level then were strong leaders who though understanding the mood of the people were far sighted enough to appreciate that their job was not simply to follow the mood but to take a long view  when  debating new legislation.

In the event the Christian  moral obligation-type ethic underlying society's behaviour  tended from the end of the 1950s onwards  to be overidden by governments which passed laws affording many secular rights untrammeled by any sense of obligation. At the  same time the flow of cheapish consumer goods into the  nation's shops began to increase to such an extent that in every high street  today  one is confronted with so much splendour and choice which contrasts breathtakingly with the experiences of  every preceding generation. Add to this the power of TV and  subsequent media advances depicting the ownership of splendid consumer items as the norm,  the makings of helping oneself almost as a right irrespective of the harm and expense caused to one's neighbour, become clear.

Laws passed by governments in the 1960s    cut quite across the christian tradition and   have in essence been accepted as being  more 'fair' than  the previously long standing yardstick of  religious custom and practice   signified. Thus 'fair' legislation such as reducing the age of sexual consent  divorce reform (making divorce easier) the. Abortion Act 1967 (making abortion easily available) came to be enacted. Of course there were many wrongs being suffered by individuals then which needed addressing such as people living in abusive unhappy marriages but I recall the same argument being applied when the Rent Acts of the 1950s and 70s were  passed. Rachman at that time essentially sought to make huge personal profits  by using London slums he had acquired to exploit the dire shortage of housing for ordinary people. The rent acts gave residential tenants rights of home security and restricted the amounts of rents that could be charged. However once the Rachman effect began to wane as a consequence, it began to be appreciated that the stock of  accommodation coming onto the market was drying up as landlords felt that residential lettings had become too risky. This resulted in the rent acts being substantially amended in an endeavour to strike a fairer balance between tenants and  landlords.

The same revisiting of secular human rights type laws to consider re-introducing a sense of  human  obligation needs to take place not least  in the light of recent turmoil.

Reverting to how best to educate people away from the me-first and  being hostile to strangers mentality  - this is difficult and there are no easy answers. The talk of gang culture is understandable but for those teenagers whose families are not wealthy and have little by way of family life at home, seeking succour among peer group gangs is understandable. The  English upper class parents answer to not providing a full family life and discipline for their children at home perhaps because they were too busy empire building or to be fair fighting Hitler, was to pay for boarding school staff to undertake that task for them. Upper class boarding schools risked  some emotional deprivation of the growing young people in their care but undoubtedly also bestowed privileges on the students placed there  by their parents. Possibly an answer for some children  for whom a gang is needed as a safe haven would be  different kind of schools which those attending  could  stay at for longer than basic school hours to develop their basic human rights and obligation as regards themselves their peers and their mentors. Maybe more like a kibbutz community than a normal school. A school I visited in Hackney before Christmas 2010 seemed to be developing  as such a safe haven - more should be encouraged,

Finally is England alone in the West in having to consider these matters and is break-in shopping the new English only  disease? I doubt it.


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