Monday, 15 August 2011

Self-Restraint VS External Coercion

"A just man that walketh in his integrity, blessed are his children after him." Proverbs 20:7

"National progress is the sum of individual industry, energy and uprightness, as national decay is of individual idleness, selfishness, and vice. What we are accustomed to decry as great social evils, will, for the most part, be found to be but the outgrowth of man's own perverted life; and though we may endeavour to cut them down and extirpate them by means of Law, they will only spring up again with fresh luxuriance in some other form, unless the conditions of personal life and character are radically improved. If this view be correct, then it follows that the highest patriotism and philanthropy consist, not so much in altering laws and modifying institutions, as in helping and stimulating men to elevate and improve themselves by their own free and independent individual action."

These words form part of the introduction to 'Self-Help' the most celebrated work of Samuel Smiles (1812-1904); a book which contains much wisdom and down-to-earth common sense.

Over the past week we have all heard the many opinions offered to explain the causes of the inexcusable orgy of violence and theft which took hold of many of our major cities early last week. Broadly (perhaps far too broadly) these arguments can be divided into two categories; the Condemnatory and the Understanding. Those who have embraced the former have spoken for a need for greater police powers, and harsher sentences for the perpetrators coupled with the loss of benefits to punish their families. Many on this side of the argument consider themselves as completely uncontaminated by and non-responsible for the moral failings of those who engaged in the wanton violence. They exhibit an Us-and-Them mentality. Good folk vs the savage underclass.

Those who subscribe to the Understanding approach have in many cases simply and transparently projected their own political ideology and discontent onto the rioters, transforming them into their personal hired-thugs to vicariously argue in favour of their own world view. A sort of "If you don't accept and implement my social/political ideology then you can expect (and deserve) similar violence" argument. I notice how many on this side of the debate very rarely express a similar desire to understand the sins and motivations of the wealthy bankers, politicians or even Murdoch and his empire! No when it comes to these wealthy sinners, it would seem they are wickedness itself.

Of course there have been plenty of reasonable, nuanced and well thought-out arguments that have gone some way to shed light onto the events that have so starkly brought to light the problems in our society and we do ourselves a disservice if we dismiss such arguments because their nuance reveals the complexity of the problem.

One motivating factor that I feel has not really been discussed enough is that of Fun. It was evident on the faces of so many looters that they were having a most exciting and amusing time. A carnival of destruction if you will. I heard many of the revellers interviewed expressing that very same motive for their acts of criminality. Why though should this come as any surprise? Anyone who has ever seen a child (and sometimes an adult) at play will know that there is great pleasure in an act of destruction. Add to this the cat-and-mouse element with the police and the sense of fun is predictably magnified. Acquisition itself produces much felicity, how many of us don't feel an increased sense of joy when we purchase an item we covet?

Problems arise when such natural, universal human instincts and desires combine with an absence or atrophy of strong moral values and self-restraint. Without these constraining bridles the worst of human kind can become unleashed, how much more so when inflamed to huge proportions in the super-charged and uninhibited atmosphere of a mob. As people we are not wholly bad or wholly good, but instead are a weave of both virtue and vice. If virtue is not placed as something to be desired and worked for, we lose the counterweight that serves to keep in check the worst in us.

While the focus of the past few days has been strongly on young people and children, it behoves all of us to realise that their behaviour during the looting was simply the extreme end of a spectrum which includes us all. Where have youngsters learned that the pursuit of fun and acquisition overcomes the verities of right and wrong? Why are notions of right and wrong themselves so abstract in the minds of many youngsters? Because that is the example that we adults have set. I could mention example after example of people (myself included) placing their own pleasure, their own wants before their duty and obligations to themselves and others. It is evident to me that we have created a society which redefines selfishness as a right and duty and restraint as repression.

How many households are in debt as a result of adults spending what they do not have? Do people really think their children don't realise what goes on? What example do adults indulging in casual drug use (and I include cigarettes in this too) give to young minds? That my moment of pleasure is far more important than the damage I do to others in my vicinity or to those in my society who may assume from my behaviour that it is OK to indulge. What lessons are we transmitting when we treat sexual intimacy as a recreational activity? That it is perfectly acceptable to reduce another human being to an unimportant vehicle of my own lustful pleasure; and then we claim to find it shocking that there are swathes of the country where young men think nothing of sleeping with girls and leaving them alone to deal with the consequences! What lesson did all those shoppers who tumbled over and crushed each other in order to grab some bargains in a Primark shop back in 2007 teach their offspring? That my desire for a new pair of shoes transcends all moral codes.

"The nation that has no higher god than pleasure, or even dollars or calico, must needs be in a poor way. It were better to revert to Homer's gods than be devoted to these; for the heathen deities at least imaged human virtues, and were something to look up to". 'Character' Samuel Smiles

Watching the news, or reading the papers last week, one could not help but be struck by the contrast of individuals throwing all decency and righteousness to the gutter in pursuit of fun and acquisition with the images of those children and adults whose lives are fading away as they succumb to the spectre of starvation and absolute poverty in the horn of Africa. What shame we should all feel at this. How demeaned has our nation become despite of its relative affluence? How unfortunately apposite are the words of scripture when they say:

"Thou art waxen fat, thou art grown thick, thou art become corpulent - Then he forsook God which made him and lightly esteemed the Rock of his salvation." Deuteronomy 32:15

I feel that the cost in continuing along the path that Britain (and so many other countries around the world) has been travelling upon will be very high. I have no doubt that Samuel Smiles was right when he wrote about the fate of nations that are composed of people:

"Living for themselves only, and with no end but pleasure - each little self his own little god - such a nation is doomed and its decay inevitable."

It is we, collectively, who have manufactured an environment (with much assistance from governments of all stripes) where self-realisation, self-indulgence and selfishness have trumped the Divine values of self-restraint, self-respect and selflessness, and it is we again collectively who could reverse the trend; a task which everyone is, according to Samuel Smiles, equally qualified to perform and to achieve:

"Even the humblest person, who sets before his fellows an example of industry, sobriety and upright honesty of purpose in life, has a present as well as a future influence upon the well-being of his country; for his life and character pass unconsciously into the lives of others, and propagate good example for all time to come."

The opportunities for us to strengthen our individual and collective character are daily given to us. For there really is no act, however trivial, that does not have its train of consequences:

"Every action, every thought, every feeling, contributes to the education of the temper, the habits, and understanding; and exercises an inevitable influence upon all the acts of our future life. Thus character is undergoing constant change, for better or for worse - either being elevated on the one hand, or degraded on the other". 'Character' Samuel Smiles

Unitarians have traditionally valued the power of individual character, and recognised that Liberty can only be created and maintained when people are governed by the ennobling qualities of self-restraint and moral integrity in place of the coercive and ultimately ineffectual power of the state. They brought to people the hopeful and life-giving gospel of Jesus, and taught that salvation is gained through good character. Let us today, following the example and instruction of our ancestors in faith and our teacher Jesus, take up the same banner and bring dignity, respect and hope to all those who are in desperate need of them, ourselves included.

"When the time arrives in any country when wealth has so corrupted, or pleasure so depraved, or faction so infatuated the people, that honour, order, obedience, virtue and loyalty have seemingly become things of the past; then, amidst the darkness, when honest men - if haply there be such left - are groping about and feeling for each other's hands, their only remaining hope will be in the restoration and elevation of Individual Character; for by that alone can a nation be saved; and if character be irrecoverably lost, then indeed there will be nothing left worth saving." 'Character' Samuel Smiles

"Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time.
Footprints that perhaps another,
Sailing o'er life's solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again."
'A Psalm of Life' Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

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