RADIO / The kids are all right: Robert Hanks on declining morality

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The Independent Culture
YEATS had a good week: Frank Delaney let slip a casual allusion on the relentlessly cheerful language magazine Word of Mouth (Radio 4, Tuesday), introducing a piece on the EC's new and threatening world of acronyms with a note that 'We're slouching towards Brussels'. And this week's Analysis (Radio 4, Thursday) went back to the original poem for its title, 'Slouching towards Bethlehem'. Melanie Phillips claimed that, roughly speaking, things fall apart, the centre cannot hold and, taking it all in all, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. Or, to borrow one of Delaney's acronyms, TAFUBAR: Things Are Fouled Up Beyond All Recognition.

Phillips' theme was the apparent weakening of morality among the young. Presumably on the basis that the best way to get people to believe you is to tell them things they already know, the evidence put forward to support that view was mostly anecdotal and mostly familiar: the murder of James Bulger, the two girls who mutilated and murdered an old woman, the teenage joy-riders, the tearaways, the hooligans, the yobs . . . But not much in the way of solid information.

We were offered one set of statistics: a Gallup poll has suggested that one-third of teenagers are not bothered about the thought of stealing small items, while more than half aren't bothered about underage sex, paying the wrong fare on public transport or pocketing the wrong change in a shop. It wasn't at all clear, though, that you could draw from this at all the sort of apocalyptic conclusions the programme seemed to be leaning towards. For a start, it seems unlikely that half of teenagers are bothered about underage sex: it always used to be the case that virtually all teenagers spent an awful lot of time being very bothered about underage sex indeed - where could you get it, would you enjoy it, would your parents find out?

But even if you accept the validity of the statistics, they don't mean much without some basis for comparison. Was there ever a time when teenagers were more bothered about petty crime than they are now? In any case, there's something odd about the idea that teenage morality offers any kind of prediction about the way society is going. Half the fun of being a teenager is getting the antisocial poison out of your system.

But sloppy assumptions pervaded the programme. One expert spoke of the dangers of video arcades - that these had become social laboratories where Frankenstein-like children would carry out all manner of vile social experiments, trying out cider, soft drugs and even different personalities, hoping to find one that would suit them. As Phillips gravely pointed out, 'Something is obviously going wrong if children are haunting these arcades as a means of sorting out who or what they are.' She didn't give any time to the more plausible alternative: what if they're not?

Phillips' case was that the country is heading into a kind of ethical tailspin. Children are taught to question established morality, but given nothing to put in its place: 'We risk leaving our children certain only of their lack of convictions.'

The Palestinian-American academic Edward Said, who this week starts this year's series of Reith Lectures on the subject of the role of the intellectual, offered a pleasantly contrary view in the traditional pre- match interview (Radio 4, Wednesday): 'One of the great problems today is a kind of inculcation of authority, that people are taught to accept certain things without criticism.'

In what's traditionally referred to as a wide-ranging conversation - a sceptic might call it rambling - James Naughtie piloted Professor Said dutifully through the obligatory disclaimers of anti-Semitism and the proclamation of broad cultural interests (Said has a passion for Wagner, which might, of course, be taken by some as invalidating the denials of anti-Semitism). As a rule, the interview is a poor guide to the lectures - Dr Steve Jones, last year, stole his own thunder very effectively by making most of the essential points about genetics more succinctly and more entertainingly in the interview. Said's interview was less spectacular, but it did give you the impression that he had more to say. And it gave you a powerfully condensed version of his central theme: 'The idea is to try to think for yourself.'

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