These reports not only reveal the erosion of manners and decency, but also the reluctance of the reporters to recognize and condemn rudeness. Instead the authors behave like ineffectual parents and try to discover excuses for the inexcusable behaviour of progeny.
|August 2005||Slurps, Burps and Bleeps|
|September 1999||Have We No shame|
TV shows spattered with four-letter words, T-shirts covered with obscenities, chat shows which specialise in greed and ignorance.
DURING a hot afternoon in the first days of spring, I was opening the windows of my house in what estate agents call a "highly sought-after" street.
What I saw shocked me. A pretty young girl was leaving the house opposite wearing the teenager's uniform of T-shirt and jeans, but on the front of the T-shirt in large thick letters were the words "(Expletive) You".
What really dismayed me was that so many grown-ups can no longer be bothered to be even mildly outraged. We have passed through the so-called permissive society and moved into the "Why bother?" society.
Why bother to make a I fuss about the offensive T-shirt or swearing youngsters or the lout with his boots on the train seat or even the grown-up lout bellowing into his mobile phone three inches from your ear?
It will make no difference and, anyway, standards have changed, haven't they? Well perhaps. What really matters is that attitudes have changed. Let's go back, for a moment, to the beginning of the permissive society. Sexual intercourse may not really have begun in 1963 but it was a darned sight less problematic after the Pill arrived.
No more furtively sneaking down side streets to buy questionable magazines and condoms without the unimaginable embarrassment of asking the stern-faced woman behind the counter at the chemist.
Now it was up to the girls, and the boys were suitably appreciative. That's what it was mostly about: A sexually permissive society. If most adults were shocked by it all, that was the whole point. They were probably a bit jealous, too. "Kids today! Don't know they are born." And they had a point. People of my parents' generation, who'd survived the horrors of the Depression and war without the cushion of a welfare state, were entitled to look at these feather-bedded youngsters enjoying sexual liberation, and a buoyant economy with jobs for all, and shake their heads. But many secretly approved.
Most wanted their children to have what they could only have dreamed of and the wise ones understood that long hair and silly kaftans were a small price to pay.
The girl with the T-shirt represented something quite different and I watched as a grey-haired old woman passed her. The way the woman looked away and bit her lip conveyed the sense that you can't say anything these days. For that brief moment on a sunny street that tiny tableau of teenage girl and puzzled old lady seemed to say a great deal.
Our attitudes have changed. Where we might once have raised our eyebrows we now avert our gaze. It's a funny thing, this business of shame. It seemed to be part and parcel of life when I was growing up. If you did something that was wrong you might or might not have been punished but you were certainly made to feel ashamed about it.
Nowadays, if it's shocking enough the culprit will get offered his own television chat show. So shame is not what it used to be. Good riddance to it, some people will say, and they have a point. You don't have to go back to witch-burning in the 17th century to see what terrible harm and suffering can be caused in communities with strong beliefs and no tolerance. I knew a bright and attractive young woman who disappeared just after she qualified as a nurse, told no-one where she was going, and did not return until almost a year later. It wasn't until I was much older that she told me she had gone off to have a baby. He was adopted at birth and she never saw him again.
The nurse's father — a businessman who took his position in the local community very seriously — had pressured her into it. He could not accept the shame of having an unmarried mother for a daughter.
Many years after, when I bought a small farm, one of my first visitors was a local farmer.
"I hope we can be good neighbours," he said, "but I will understand if you do not wish to be friendly with me." "Why on earth shouldn't we?" I asked him. "Because I am living with a woman who is not my wife and there are many in the town who will not accept that."
I wanted to tell him that in my street he would have been in the majority and that many of my younger friends got married only when babies started arriving on the scene. I cannot believe that many of us would choose to return to the days when shame dominated our society, when homosexuals were branded as dangerous misfits, when single parents and their children were stigmatised, when the word "bastard" was used in its literal sense.
But It is one thing to deplore the stigma attached to, behaviour we might no longer consider shameful; it is quite another to chuck out the notion of shame altogether. We still use the word shame — we might even still mean it — but less and less does it have any purchase.
We used to laugh at Americans for being so desperate to get on the box that they'd sell their granny. We have joined them. Now there seems to be a need to tell the world "Look at me, look at how weak and sad I am" or "Look at him, look at how badly he has treated me."
Self-justification is usually the message: You are the victim or you're making a claim of absolute right to pursue your own selfish interest. That's why it always seems so shameless, because it literally is. Self-justification is the antithesis of shame, and self-justification before millions is shamelessness with knobs on.
We are losing our sense of what shame is because we are losing the sense of belonging to a community. It's the community that produces the values necessary for us to feel shame or its opposite. Instead what we are pre-occupied with is something different: Feeling good about ourselves.