Monday, August 15, 2011

The Moral Collapse of Society

If you're already sick of people moralizing about the riots, you can skip to my next post now.

It was a bit of a dilemma which way to choose to ride home on 'Riot Tuesday'. I'd heard rumours of youths gathering in large groups on Wandsworth Common, my usual route, but on the other hand, a route with lots of loot-able shops like the A24 might not be a wise selection either. Eventually I elected for the A24, on the basis that I could probably see trouble ahead before I reached it and could easily do a '180' if needs be. While you are undoubtedly more vulnerable on a bike, you're also more manoeuvrable, and perhaps less of a target (although at least one cyclist was mugged in the riots).

I'd also heard that Wimbledon shops were closing early so I took a quick turn round the Broadway one-way system to see what was occurring. There were a few young people hanging around, but no more than you'd expect on a sunny day in the summer holidays, and everyone was behaving pretty normally. There were I think four police outside the station, and most of the shops were closed.

When you ride a bicycle on the streets of the UK, you regularly come into contact with drivers who have little concern or respect for your right to go about your lawful business, no concern for your personal safety, and for reasons of selfishness, hatred or sheer bloody-mindedness are prepared to flout the law just because they can and because they believe they won't get caught. In other words, it's brought home to you regularly how much you depend on civilized, considerate behaviour and respect for the law, and how vulnerable you are when that breaks down. Maybe therefore, the riots are more of a shock for people who spend all their time in houses in nice neighbourhoods, or in the secure surroundings offered by cars and shopping malls.

I wonder what the aftermath of the riots will be. I prefer not to call them 'riots', because that word has a political overtone. There's nothing political for the most part about these disturbances; it's just amoral organized crime. But condemning the criminality doesn't give any insight into how it came about, what's wrong with society, and how such large numbers of people have such weak personal integrity and so little fear of the consequences of their actions. Maybe there's something marbled through the whole of society that leads to this. I can exclusively reveal that something is: Crap parenting/culture of impunity/elf 'n' safety/inequality/rap music/classical music/the X factor/lack of respect (respec?) for authority other than Simon Cowell/footballers/unemployment/immigration/'me too' culture of entitlement/illiteracy. Delete one or more according to preference.

Cameron has called for a 'new moral army'. Unfortunately when the establishment talk about morals, they usually mean other people's. Consideration, restraint and respect for the law have to be core values at the top of society as well as the bottom. Cameron's near-neigbour Jeremy Clarkson has praised the burning-out of speed cameras and advocated running down cyclists. Maybe his comments were just a bit of harmless fun (he's such a wag), but harmless fun is what some of the rioters seem to think about the riots. I wonder where they got that idea that law-breaking and arson are harmless fun? I wonder what Clarkson has to say about rioters burning stuff or running people down? For the middle classes, motoring law is an inconvenience that can be ignored; speeding fines are just taxes, and taxes are there to be dodged; expense claims are just part of your remuneration and there to be inflated with moat-cleaning and duck houses. Phones and computers can be hacked if it sells papers. If the rich and the media regard parts of the law as optional, irresponsible behaviour as 'a bit of a larf', and the only crime is getting caught, it's a bit much to expect the poor not to do likewise.

Morality is not just about the absolute red line of the law. It is also about the distinction between good and bad behaviour. Hard work, prudence, restraint, conservation of finite resources and the environment, and a healthy lifestyle are some of the values that should be promoted. But this is a Government that hitherto has set its face against intervention to promote 'good' behaviours. It's refused to use any of the levers of government to encourage healthy eating or responsible drinking; the Tory London Assembly members have refused to countenance a road user hierarchy that promotes a shift to healthy, active travel from car use. You can't go straight from being a libertarian to being a paternalist - surely even that is too much of a U-turn for Cameron to perform.

So what are our core values as a society?

It's four years ago that looting for personal gain (by the bankers) led to businesses being destroyed and livelihoods being lost. Then there was much talk of 'moral hazard'. Now, while the bonuses are back for the bankers, in contrast many young people languish on the dole queues while their more academically able and 'fortunate' peers face a lifetime of debt paying off student loans. Meanwhile, we have a culture of individualism, and one that doesn't disapprove of or condemn selfishness. The wealthy burn oil without consideration of the consequences for generations to come, and the media are happy to indulge their short-sighted folly by offering denial of the science that predicts those consequences.

What kind of people do we celebrate? There are plenty of people who put just as much back into society as they take out, and plenty of people who don't flaunt their weath. There are plenty of people whose artistic, sporting, charitable, intellectual and business achievements should serve as a good example to society. But those things aren't in the main celebrated in the media.  'Celebrity' has become little more than a synonyn for ostentatious consumption, for undeserved wealth, for self-indulgence, for offensiveness, aberrant behaviour and moral bankruptcy.

Profligacy too is endemic. The promotion of easy credit means being in possession of desirable goods you do not own and maybe won't ever be able to pay for is valued more highly than running your life sustainably and planning for the future. Being in debt used to be shameful: not any more. In fact it's promoted by governments desperate for economic growth and the material consumption that's supposedly necessary to achieve it. Meanwhile, governments are racking up unsustainable debts of their own because they lack the leadership to make the tough choices necessary to balance the budget. The waste isn't confined to money: there's a long commercial chain of transactions that keeps us blissfully ignorant of the consequences of our purchases, in terms of the natural resources consumed and the dangerous and inhumane conditions in third-world factories.

Having consumerism as UK society's main aspiration may have been workable in the days of high employment and rising disposable incomes, when consumer goods were getting cheaper every year. But today, particularly for many young people, the consumerist dream of the designer wardrobe and i-gadgets is not only out of reach but receding every year as inflation, unemployment and economic stagnation conspire with cuts to education maintenance allowances and tuition fee increases.

Now don't get me wrong. Getting Clarkson to shut up isn't going to change anything. But could cycling could play a part in changing society for the better? Maybe. Unfulfilled aspirations are dangerous, and certainly played a part in motivating the looting. Car ownership is in many ways the most damaging aspiration because it is the most expensive to fulfill as well as being the most environmentally harmful. The aspiration is reinforced not only by advertising, but also by the fact that the roads are so clearly designed around motorists, reinforcing the perception that motorists are at the top of the social tree...

No comments:

Post a Comment