Re-discovering values after the English riots

What does it take to remoralize society? How do values actually work as social phenomena? Support services for children know that the most successful interventions are long-term ones, but these are not the most attractive options for politicians seeking eye-catching, new policy initiatives.
Gordon Lynch
17 August 2011

Despite the low numbers of people involved in the recent riots (a tiny fraction of the population), the disorder does appear to have crystallised a wider sense of unease in British society. The resulting discussion of ‘values’ has the potential to make us reassess certain aspects of social life to which we may have become oblivious or resigned.

What is particularly striking in this debate, however, is the unquestioned assumption of what these ‘values’ are or how they work in practice. This assumption is not limited to politicians or commentators: social scientists often use the term ‘values’ without any clear theoretical underpinning, or equate people’s values with survey responses given when asked hypothetical questions about moral issues. Without some clarity about the nature of ‘values’, though, we cannot hope to formulate a satisfactory response to any moral malaise that ails our nation.

Values are not, it should be said, a check-list of rights and wrongs which exist in the mind of an individual. Values cannot be downloaded into a person like a piece of software by parents, teachers or clergy. If this were the case, the demoralisation of society could easily be addressed by parents setting down clear moral codes, more citizenship education and vicars strenuously preaching the Ten Commandments. Whilst this is the default plan of some politicians and tabloid newspapers, it doesn’t work because its underlying conception of values is inadequate.

Values manifest in our lives not as abstract moral principles, but as ways of seeing the world that we inhabit through our significant relations. The theologian Stanley Hauerwas once told a story about a married friend of his, who used to do a lot of extended travelling for work, and would fantasise about the opportunities for extra-marital sex that this might provide. On one occasion, though, this man was actually propositioned by an air attendant on a late night flight, who suggested that they might spend the night together. The man’s first thought was, ‘How could I explain the delay to my wife?’ And in that moment, he realised he could not find it in himself to tell the lies that would be needed to conduct such affairs. In that moment, Hauerwas commented, his friend discovered that through his family relationships he had unwittingly developed the virtue of fidelity.

Valerios Theofanidis/Demotix. All rights reserved.

What we aspire to, morally, and what we find shameful or unacceptable, is learned through the eyes of people who are significant to us: family, friends, partners, peer groups. Values are not abstract laws, but habits of feeling that we build up over time in our close relationships. What we can even conceive of as possibilities for our actions are filtered through what we imagine would please or disappoint those who are important to us. Obviously our families and peer groups never entirely define us, nor do the role models of celebrities or religious tradition. We always retain some capacity for resistance and innovation, although this is often hard-won. But our moral sentiments are always forged through the complex nexus of feelings and perceptions that make up our significant inter-personal relations.

Alongside such inter-subjective values, powerful social moral forces also exert their influence. These are ‘sacred’ realities that define the moral boundaries of human society, and are widely shared, regardless of the idiosyncrasies of the moral habits formed through our close relations. There may appear to be a vast moral chasm between the rioters and the rest of the population. But there would still be considerable consensus between them that paedophilia, for instance, is an unquestionable profanity against the sacredness of care of children. Despite the multiplicity of forms of the sacred in the modern world, public imagination can still be powerfully gripped by collective experiences of moral indignation, as the response to the News of the World phone hacking scandal demonstrated in early July. These sacred sentiments may get woven into our everyday relations in barely noticed ways, but they are not the product of the local histories of our families or peer groups. They typically evolve over centuries, continually developing new expressions but grounded in longer patterns of cultural history.

If we think of values not as moral check-lists but as both habits of feeling formed through close relations, and collective experiences of sacred sentiments in wider society, the strengths and weaknesses of different approaches to our current situation become clearer. If we accept that changing a person’s habituated ways of seeing the world takes time and considerable emotional investment, David Cameron’s aspiration to turn around the lives of 120,000 problem families by 2015 is clearly facile. If people have learned through their close relations to have no hopes for their future, to confuse cruelty with having a laugh, or to see society as so unfair as to make any morality absurd, this can only be changed through patient relationships that can nurture alternative ways of seeing. Support services for children know that the most successful interventions are long-term ones, but these are not the most attractive options for politicians seeking eye-catching, new policy initiatives.

It is tempting to imagine that such interventions are also only needed within the problem families of the underclass. But across society, we might wonder how various inter-personal relations make possible lives that seem less than morally sound. The infidelities of highly-paid footballers seem to be a facet of some marriages in which male infidelity is accepted as the price of a high-income household. Families’ aspirations for the best schooling for their children, or the greatest levels of household style and comfort, are often bound up with the exploitation of migrant domestic workers or professional practices designed to maximise personal income over wider social well-being. It is not just the underclasses that are in need of a moral audit in terms of the habits and virtues that are cultivated through their close relations.

Matthew Aslett/Demotix. All rights reserved.

If broader, sacred values can also bind us into a deeper sense of shared moral community across society, we might also ask how these can be nurtured. Our society has distinguished itself in creating built environments that show the least signs of any sense of sacred meaning of any period in history. Our high streets are dominated by chain stores and global corporations who promise convenience but little meaning. New-build properties offer modernist-lite conceptions of style, devoid of any sense of modernism’s original moral purpose. The explosion of public art has left our towns and cities with works that are all too often vacuous and un-compelling. Policy makers are clearly aware of this gap and have tried to address it, usually through repeated and unsuccessful attempts to re-launch a sense of ‘British-ness’. But convincing moral visions for society cannot be created in ersatz fashion through short-term policy ideas. They are already at hand, woven through the moral significance that is variously given to the nation, nature and humanity in the stories that our society tells about itself. Learning to see where these sacred meanings still move us, as well as the shadow-side of sacred commitments, is another long task for a remoralising society.

This analysis offers no quick fixes. But if we understand the forms that values and morality actually take in real social life, we might be spared some of the disappointments of policies designed to shock people into a clear sense of right and wrong. 

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