Whenever a terrorist outrage takes place, followed by the ritual response that it represents an assault on ‘our values’ that must be resisted, it’s not just the assumption that such acts of murder are primarily an attack on our values (as opposed to, say, a crime against humanity) that I find questionable. (See previous discussion on this point.) I also find it bemusing that there’s a presupposition that ‘our values’ are something wholly positive.
Of course, ‘our values’ should be defended, simply because they are our values. It’s our right to determine what those values should be, and we mustn’t be deterred from that by the men of violence. And it’s a natural reaction to want to rally round and reaffirm what we stand by. But implicit in this is also an idea that ‘our values’ are the right values: not just our right but the right – morally and philosophically superior to any other set of values.
These values of ours – which are also said to be intrinsically ‘British values’ – are usually defined in the most general of terms: liberty, democracy, tolerance, equality, progress, the rule of law, etc. Difficult to object against those on principle, although in practice, they often don’t mean what they say on the tin. But then do these somewhat abstract concepts truly encapsulate everything that we might mean by ‘our values’? You could say that they’re only the conceptual superstructure by which we justify and attempt to give a philosophical account of what is termed our ‘way of life’ – also said to be under threat from the terrorists. These values are as it were the ‘form’, or formal definition; while how we actually live, and what we live for and by, is the ‘content’ of British culture and society. And how should that content be described?
Another type of shocking event that puts ‘our values’ into question is apparently random acts of youth violence, such as that which claimed the life of young Rhys Jones last week. Incidents such as this do not easily fit the idea we’d like to hold of our society as living by the values of tolerance and the rule of law. That’s not to say that gang crime and youth violence are somehow the ‘truth’ of life in Britain today and fine-sounding generalities are a ‘lie’. One of the paradoxes of the whole thing is that while murders of this sort understandably lead to agonising discussions about ‘gun culture’, youth violence and anti-social behaviour, the crime statistics (or some of them) indicate that gun crime is decreasing.
Apart from our natural horror and outrage at the needless wasting of such a young life, society’s hand wringing stems from a fear that the violence this exemplifies represents another assault – like that of terrorism – on the tolerant, law-abiding society we like to think we are. This is not so much something that could realistically overwhelm society, bringing lawlessness and anarchy; rather, it is something that undermines society symbolically – impairing our self-image and the linkage we like to make between our liberties and social progress.
The vicar of the church situated behind the pub in whose car park poor Rhys was gunned down was interviewed on the BBC Radio Four Today programme on Friday morning. He stated his opinion that gang culture arises in part out of society’s ‘commoditisation’ of human life: that what you have is seen as more important than what and who you are. Whether that fits the motivation of the boy who killed Rhys Jones we may never know. But this does highlight an important issue. Our society has become more selfish and materialistic, and does set much more store by individual possessions and material assets than it did in the past. What’s involved in this is a sort of displacement of value: monetary value (wealth) comes to be seen as an intrinsic value; ‘our value’ to ourselves and others is seen in terms of ‘our value’ at the bank. Our values, as a society, are then inextricably linked with economic success.
These are not just philosophical or theological abstractions: they relate to the way politicians talk and ordinary people really think about British society and their own aspirations. One of the things that politicians like to point to as demonstrating the validity of our values and the ‘greatness’ of Britain is our economic success: the fact that we’re the ‘fourth-largest economy in the world’, or wherever we stand in the GDP rankings nowadays. And the conventional measures of individual success involve things like: getting a good education; progressing up whichever career ladder you’ve chosen; achieving a good standard of living; amassing possessions and properties; raising a family to enjoy even better material conditions and personal opportunities than you benefited from yourself, etc.
On one level, there’s nothing wrong about having such aspirations: better to have some goals in life, especially if they’re family-centred, than none. Equally, Britain does have an economic record over the last 20 years or so that we can feel proud about to some extent. But if these things are what truly define ‘our values’ – if there’s nothing beyond them – this does mean that terms that more adequately describe our way of life (what we live for and by) are things like individualism and materialism, rather than flattering abstractions such as liberty and progress, which could be viewed as referring to the underlying economic and social structures that enable our individual and material self-improvement. And if we define our worth in terms of our net worth – in a financial sense – this does mean that people who feel unable to enter into the path of personal progression described above feel worthless: devoid of respect from society and lacking in self-respect.
I find it ironic that Tony Blair chose the term ‘respect’ on which to hang his drive to reduce anti-social behaviour: the so-called ‘respect agenda’. ‘Respect’ is, of course, a concept central to the gang culture and has become almost a cliché in youth jargon as an expression of appreciation for a person or thing – one thinks of the Ali G parody of rapper language. People who’ve been members of gangs talk about how their membership, and the fact they were able to walk about carrying firearms or knives, made them feel empowered to demand respect from others; and that the one thing you absolutely couldn’t do was ‘disrespect’ / ‘dis’ gang members – another key term in the argot. I wouldn’t be surprised if the youngster who killed Rhys Jones hadn’t been put up to it by members of a gang as a means to show he was worthy of their respect and inclusion within their group.
The point of all this is to suggest that gang culture and the young people that get caught up in it are from being without any notion of respect for others; but their attraction for gangs is built on a sense of not being respected and regarded as having any worth by mainstream society. The formation of gangs is a way for such people to create an alternative society, in opposition to the mainstream culture, which they turn against violently in order to reinforce the cohesion and importance of their own group, to which they transfer their loyalty and sense of belonging – and from which they seek and obtain respect.
This then raises the question: to what extent does our society genuinely not show sufficient respect to some young people, so that they then reject its norms and notions of acceptable behaviour? I think it is true that British society does fail many of its young people in quite significant ways: inadequate education; family break up; the decline in the provision of constructive outlets for young people’s energies, for instance through membership of other types of youth organisation (sports and social clubs, Scouts, etc.) that offer that essential sense of belonging, the opportunity for energetic activities and the chance to develop feelings of self-worth from doing things for the community in which they live; and a false set of values that sets a higher store by career and financial success than by just being who you are and caring about others.
I think David Cameron is right when he says that the break down of family structures is key to all this. But I’m not convinced the Tories or any other political party have the ‘answers’. You can’t reinforce marriage, for instance, simply by a few tax incentives. The problem is not limited to particular deprived inner city areas or social classes but is common to society as a whole. One of the main reasons why marriages break down is because there is no social consensus about what marriage is and what purpose it should serve, resulting in a weakening of the commitment to marriage as an intrinsically good thing. And this is as much a phenomenon of the middle-to-upper classes as of the lower classes, although the social effects can be mitigated to some extent through the educational and financial opportunities that are still open to children in more well-off families affected by divorce.
Elsewhere, I’ve attempted to set out some new principles for civil marriage, which would require precisely such a new social consensus if they were ever to be implemented. In the present circumstances, it’s not really an option for us to try to go back to Christian concepts of marriage – even though I personally believe in them – because the majority of people (and, arguably, many Christians) no longer accept or live by Christian or any religion-based ethics, and there are sizeable portions of society that adhere to other faiths. But the main reason why we need to drastically improve our performance in the marriage area is children. Even if we adults find it difficult to agree about what marriage should mean, it’s unmistakably clear that children need stable parental relationships, and benefit from the sign and example of their parents commitment to them as children and to each other that marriage provides.
This is something that the faiths of our ethnic and religious minorities seem to have managed to hold on to better than the Christian or former-Christian majority. I was reminded of this last week by one of those fly-on-the-wall documentaries where two mothers change places with each other and go to live with each other’s families for a couple of weeks. One of the mothers in last week’s programme was a devout headscarf-wearing Muslim; while the other mother was a liberal-minded atheist who worked in a radical theatre company and whose daughter had recently come out as a Lesbian. One of the things that struck me most powerfully was the way in which her marriage, and duties to her husband and children, were so central to the Muslim woman. While this was linked with some social attitudes that we would find problematic in the West (prejudice towards homosexuals, ‘excessive’ deference towards the husband, limited freedom in lifestyle choices for the daughters), the Muslim family nonetheless provided an impressive example of family cohesion and togetherness of precisely the kind that is necessary to give children the best start in life and a sense of self-worth.
The importance of marriage and children are absolutely central to the ethics of Islam and of other minority faiths. And they need to become central to our own thinking about bringing about social cohesion and dealing with the problems of disaffected youth. The solution is in our own hands. We have to begin by reforming our own lives and relationships – otherwise, talk of reforming something as general and abstract as ‘society’ is meaningless. Adapting the aphorism, charity towards our children begins at home.
Of course, it’s not just about children and marriage; it’s about the principles and values that shape our whole lives. Are we fundamentally self-centred – focused on satisfying our own desires and aspirations, and on amassing ever more possessions and wealth? Or are we people-centred: concerned about the needs of those around us – our ‘neighbours’ in the traditional Christian sense – and doing what we can to help them? Most of us are probably a mixture of the two; but have we got the mix right – are our values truly the right values?
A society that is self-centred – individualistic and materialistic – is one that creates winners and losers. If we’re indifferent to the losers and they feel excluded from society’s rewards, we shouldn’t be too surprised if they band together and lash out against ‘our values’. A society that is people-centred, on the other hand, is one which by definition seeks to include and involve everyone, and which builds community and a system of mutual support and care based on true respect for others.
But it’s not really ‘our values’ that are impaired by the gun-wielding gang member or the terrorist suicide bomber; it’s our lives – those of the victims and those of the perpetrators. To what extent are the actions of the murderers in each case governed by the fact that ‘our values’ leave no place for them: for their lives, their values and their right to our respect? Which is not to justify their deeds but might help to explain them.
There must be something wrong with a society and world order that creates people who feel so alienated and hostile that they are driven to apparently indiscriminate acts of violence against it. Those people are not separate from our society and motivated by forces of which we can have no conception. Except, of course, we have separated them and factored them out of our values and our lives – which is the very source of the problem.
Next time a terrorist outrage reinforces our hostility towards Islam as a value system that radically challenges our own, perhaps we should remember the ways in which true Islam – not that of the terrorists – embodies good values that we no longer seem able to live by, such as those of permanent marriage and dedication to others. Perhaps our fear of Islam rests to some extent on our own lack of faith or even bad faith: a projection of our guilty consciences about the sacred values our lives no longer reflect.
And the next time a child is gunned down by another child, let’s not turn the child killer, in both senses, into a monster – the selfishness and indifference of our society and our values has already done that.