We’ve been here before and there is a way back

August 12, 2011
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This article was first published in The Times on 12th August 2011

The immediate aftermath of the riots is no time for a spate of finger wagging and the indiscriminate scattering of blame. We all remember Macauley’s line that “We know no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodic fits of morality.”

But what we have witnessed is a real, deep-seated and frightening failure of morality. These were not rebels with or without a cause. They were mostly bored teenagers, setting fire to cars for fun and looting shops for clothes, shoes, electronic gadgets and flat screen televisions. If that is not an indictment of the consumer society, what is?

Where were the parents while their eleven-year-old children were out creating havoc? Where was the internalised self restraint that says, There are certain things you just don’t do, because if you do, we will all suffer? Where was the capacity to defer the gratification of instinct which, according to Freud, is the basis of all civilisation? Where, to put it bluntly, was the sense of right and wrong?

There were moments, images, remarks, that will stay with us for a long time. The video showing one youth ostensibly helping another while in fact distracting his attention so that an accomplice could steal the contents of his bag. The statement made by one young man in Manchester, “I’m not going to miss this chance to get stuff for free.” Or another: “I’ll keep doing this every day until I get caught. When I get home nothing is going to happen to me.” Why were they doing it? Because they could. Because everyone else was. Because it was fun. Because the police weren’t really in control. Because they are not going to send me to prison for a first offence. Because there is always someone else to blame.

Honesty compels the further question: Who has been setting a counter-example? Bankers? Parliamentarians? The press? The wave after wave of scandal that have washed over Britain have left many people wondering who, today, is genuinely willing to sacrifice an opportunity for self-interest because it would be dishonourable or discreditable to do otherwise. For some time our culture has been sending out a tacit message that morality is passé, conscience is for wimps, and the sole command is, “Thou shall not be found out.”

There are moments in the history of any civilisation when it catches a glimpse of the state of its soul. We have just seen ours, and it has not been a pleasant sight. Yes, the rioters were a minority. The majority wanted nothing to do with them. A significant counter-minority intervened to help victims or came out the next day to clear up the mess. Britain remains for the most part a thoroughly decent society. But there can be no doubt that something in our moral ecology has gone astray. And we are all implicated, because we are all responsible, individually and collectively, for the moral state of society. That is one duty that cannot be delegated away to the government, the police or social services.

Can a society be re-moralised? Is there a historic precedent? There is. In the 1820s rates of crime were high in Britain and the United States. Writers of the time tell us it was unsafe to walk the streets of London, during the day because of pickpockets, at night because of “unruly ruffians.” In America young men were moving from farms to cities away from the control of their parents. Alcohol consumption rocketed. People were horrified, then as now, at scenes of young people out of control.

Beginning in the 1820s, in both countries, there was a massive shift in public opinion that gave rise to a series of movements of social reform, among them the abolition of slavery, temperance movements, the creation of urban police forces, the drive to eliminate corporal and capital punishment, the creation of Sunday schools and YMCA buildings. What they had in common, as Harvard criminologist James Q. Wilson has documented, was the desire to teach principles of right conduct, moral character, will power and self restraint. It worked. Within a single generation, crime rates came down and social order was restored. What was achieved was nothing less than the re-moralisation of society.

It can and must be done again. For me one of the most moving testimonies came, in Wednesday’s Times, from a man in his twenties whose father had died from an alcohol overdose and whose mother had committed suicide. He wrote that he might have been among the rioters had it not been for Kids Company who gave him “the hope that I could be a respected member of society.” That was something he didn’t want to lose.

Three years ago I came across a book that became a surprise best seller in the United States. It was called Do Hard Things, subtitled A Teenage Rebellion Against Low Expectations. It told of how two 19-year-olds, Alex and Brett Harris, decided to stage a protest against the idea that the teenage years are a ‘vacation from responsibility’.  They started a blog challenging their contemporaries to show moral leadership. It changed lives.

Too much of contemporary society has been a vacation from responsibility. Children have been the victims of our self-serving beliefs that you can have partnerships without the responsibility of marriage, children without the responsibility of parenthood, social order without the responsibility of citizenship, liberty without the responsibility of morality, and self-esteem without the responsibility of hard work and achievement.

I have seen, in our schools and youth groups, what happens to children when you challenge them to greatness by service to others. They exceed all our expectations. Children grow to fit the space we create for them. If it is big they grow tall. If it is small, they rebel.

We need a new culture of responsibility. Societies can be re-moralised. The 1820s showed us how. This week’s riots showed us why. We need to challenge young people to exercise moral leadership, and the only way of doing so is by starting with ourselves.