It was just three days after the horrific
Paris crash that killed Princess Diana. I was with my family in a rental
car, speeding along the Pacific Highway in glorious spring weather at the
start of a long-planned Gold Coast holiday. It was still that mind-numbing
period following the tragedy when everyone believed that intrusive
paparazzi cameramen pursuing Diana had caused the accident.
The middle-aged manageress of the rental
company was driving. “What do you do?” she asked.
“I’m a freelance writer.”
She took her eyes off the road for an
instant and glanced at me, then smiled grimly. “It’s lucky you didn’t say
you’re a freelance photographer. I might have had to kick you out of the
Then she paused and reflected. “But I
guess we’re all to blame. We all buy those magazines with the photos in
She drove on in puzzled silence, clearly
unsure as to whether she, personally, was really to blame for the death of
the world’s most popular woman.
Her perplexed state was understandable.
Indeed, in the nearly five years since my family had come to live in
Australia I had noticed, repeatedly, that so many Australians seemed to be
afflicted by a similar confusion about ethical matters.
It was a bewilderment that sprang from
the traumatic pace of change in a country where life was once easy. The
concerns came through most forcefully when parents were talking about their
children. There was a feeling that something had gone wrong; a fear that
kids were not turning out as well as they ought, despite their parents’ best
efforts; a perception that life had moved into a period of moral ambiguity.
For me, it was sadly ironic. I had lived
in Tokyo for 17 years, first as a journalist, and then as a securities
analyst with an investment bank. I was highly paid and we enjoyed a fine
life in one of the world’s most exciting cities. But with the elder of our
two boys reaching school age, and a third child on the way, we had resolved
to find a city that promised a more relaxed and congenial family
I was a New Zealander and my wife was
Korean. But the brochures I picked up from the Qantas office in the building
next to mine, in Tokyo’s Marunouchi business district, made Melbourne really
seem the world’s most liveable place. And so we arrived, at the beginning of
1993, in the middle of a heatwave, not knowing a single person in the city
but confident that we would make a good life for our kids.
We moved into an upmarket suburb. But
scarcely had we been invited to our first barbecue than we realised that
others did not share our intense optimism. We started hearing stories about
the drug problem, the youth suicide epidemic, a divorce explosion, growing
crime, a gravity-defying level of unemployment, ethically-challenged
business leaders, and more. We learned of surveys that suggested startling
levels of dishonesty among teenagers. It was enough to make you drop your
glass of Shiraz and phone Qantas for a ticket out.
We stayed. Our family - all five of us -
are Australians now, and as buoyantly optimistic as before. But we are
realistic too, and it is clear there are problems.
In particular, there is a sense of
nihilistic despair among too many young people, a feeling that life holds
The US child psychologist Professor
Martin Seligman, author of
The Optimistic Child, in an appearance on the ABC’s “Lateline”
television programme in 1997, pointed to an epidemic of depression among
children in the West - some as young as eight or nine - which he blamed on
over-indulgence by their parents, and the pervasive influence of the
“Our spiritual furniture has become
threadbare,” he told interviewer Jennifer Byrne. He added that unless steps
were taken to break the cycle of the epidemic, Australia would lose its
economic position in the world, and would become filled with “a generation
of pessimistic older people who then teach their children further embedded,
His gloomy forecast seemed to be endorsed
a year later when a researcher told a meeting of the colleges of physicians
and paediatricians that mood disorders had become so endemic that up to 20%
of Australian children would experience serious depression before leaving
During my stay in Tokyo, I learned that
the Japanese language takes many English expressions and turns them into
strange-sounding words. An example is batontatchi, from the English
“baton touch”. It is an important concept, as it refers - among other things
- to the manner in which ideals and values are passed down through the
This is clearly an area where Australian
parents feel something is lacking in our culture. No matter how hard they
work at passing on to their children the ideals and values they hold dear,
and which they believe are vital for a properly functioning society, they
feel those ideals and values are no longer fully supported by that society.
Ask any group of parents their
priorities, and you will certainly hear that providing economic security for
their children is crucial, together with passing on certain moral values –
notably, a sense of what is right and wrong. Yet the institutions of our
society - the media, book publishers, government agencies, private
companies, community groups - at times seem to have conspired to work
against parents, to the extent of sometimes even claiming that fixed moral
values no longer exist.
It is like running a relay race but being
forced, at the moment of passing over the baton, to negotiate potholes in
the track and dodge objects being hurled by an abusive crowd. Or like a
high-wire act at a circus where the acrobats are forced to use rusting
trapeze equipment and a weak and fraying support net.
Our kids may know in minute detail what
is “cool” and “uncool”, but in many cases they no longer know what is right
and wrong. Even their parents, who once were pretty certain about what was
correct behaviour, are becoming increasingly less sure themselves.
We clearly live in an age of moral
uncertainty, and, while it can be healthy to question antique beliefs (the
persistent questioning of the old ways of doing things is one of the
strengths of Australia) it sometimes seems that we have thrown out the
bathtub while trying to retain the water. The old moral absolutes are gone,
and we are feeling the consequences.
The thoughtful children’s-book author
Masson wrote a letter to The Australian in which she warned that
our young people might be like the canary in the mine - the first to warn of
danger, and the first to die of it:
The danger lies in the culture itself, a
culture that has displaced or deconstructed the ideals of honour, integrity
and courage in public and private life - ideals that young people have always
responded to. Those are ideals that belong to everybody, of whatever sex or
sexual orientation or race or ethnicity. No matter how loving the family, if
the dominant images of the culture in which young people live are of
rancour, nihilism, apathy and rage, the most fragile young people will
succumb. This does not mean things were better in the past, because they
weren’t; but even if ideals remain ideals, at least they’re there. If
they are submerged under a flood of negativity and dishonour, then young
people will drown with them.
That letter seemed to me to express some
important truths. Travelling around Asia, I saw that many countries there
have more than their share of social problems: gross inequality in some,
while others experience a rampant materialism far worse than anything in
Australia. But at least there is a positive support structure for kids. They
are forever being presented with heroes and role models. They are given
challenges. They are taught the difference between right and wrong. The
entire society works together to pass on the values of the culture to the
By contrast, it often seems that in
Australia the whole culture has turned against people struggling to raise
their kids decently. And it has done this at exactly the time when it has
become harder to raise a family than at any time in recent memory, with
parents forced to work harder than ever just to get by, and a surge in
Indeed, it seems at times that the
culture has turned against precisely those with special needs: the poor, the
sick, the one-parent families, the unemployed. It is almost as if these
people are being blamed for their troubles.
How on earth could this have happened?
Lee Kuan Yew, former Prime Minister of Singapore, was never shy to speak out
when he sensed something amiss in the West. He sometimes went over the top
in his criticism. But I think he was onto something quite important in a
long interview he gave to the American
Foreign Affairs magazine in 1994.
Speaking about life in the West today, he
commented that there has been an erosion of the moral underpinnings of our
society and a diminution of personal responsibility. He said that some
basics about human nature do not change, and that people need a moral sense
of right and wrong. “There is such a thing called evil, and it is not the
result of being a victim of society,” he said. “You are just an evil man,
prone to do evil things, and you have to be stopped from doing them.
Westerners have abandoned an ethical basis for society.”
And that, I believe, is where things have
gone wrong. We have forgotten the reality of evil and suffering in our
world. We have forgotten that human beings are not perfect; that we may
strive our darnedest to be good, but that we keep getting tempted to do
things we know are wrong, and sometimes we succumb.
In other words, we have forgotten that we
live in a fallen world; that we are fallible.
To talk of a fallen world is to use
old-fashioned language. It is the language of the Bible, and of Adam and
Eve. Yet sometimes when things are going wrong it is unwise to keep pressing
forwards in the hope of muddling through. Rather, we need to step back a few
paces and try to take stock of our situation. A bit of “old-fashioned”
vocabulary might, paradoxically, provide a freshness of thought and a
directness that we need to understand our predicament.
Australia may never have been a
strikingly Christian country. But at least in the past most people adhered
more or less to Christian notions of right and wrong, and of justice and
morality. They probably accepted the church’s teachings on the necessity of
duty and service and moderation for a well-functioning society. And they
would, most likely, have agreed with religious leaders that in raising
children we should strive for the development of good character - that is,
we should emphasise traditional virtues such as honesty and justice. But now
that we have evolved into what some term a “post-Christian” society, we are
suffering a spiritual malaise.
In any case, it is not just the Bible and
Christianity that talk of a fallen people. Most religions and many ethical
systems view evil, suffering and temptation as realities of this world.
Countries like Japan or Korea would not
allow giant casinos to be built in the hearts of their largest cities. It is
not that the municipal authorities wouldn’t welcome the extra tax revenue.
But the national governments know how alluring a glittering gambling
facility would prove to many people, and recognise the social disruption
that would ensue.
When I lived in Tokyo, most working
people commuted by train, and most train services stopped at midnight. In
such a giant metropolis, there was plenty of demand for later runs. But the
government knew the temptations of the city’s estimated 100,000 bars and
other nightspots, and it wanted working people home at a reasonable hour.
Taxis were plentiful, though between
midnight and about 2:00am was a peak period for Tokyo taxi drivers:
sometimes you had to wave two or three fingers in the air - to indicate you
would pay double or triple the rate on the meter - if you wanted one to stop
for you. Anyway, with most Tokyo working people living more than an hour’s
drive from the city centre, taxis home – in the daytime or at night - were a
(One side-effect was that just before
midnight, service from the hostesses at Tokyo’s bars became overwhelming, as
the mama-san worked to keep her customers. She knew that once you
missed the last train, she had you for another hour or two.)
But when we forget that people are not
perfect - that we are subject to temptation - we encounter all kinds of
After Princess Diana’s death, there was
huge controversy about the role of the paparazzi photographers who
had been harassing her and taking intrusive photos. They were blamed for her
death, and there was anger, too, at the magazines that were paying
increasingly inflated sums for the pictures.
Yet there was a realisation that we, the
readers of the magazines, might also be somehow to blame. Hence the
bewilderment of well-meaning individuals like my rental-car company
The problem again, of course, is that
human beings are human. Give us the chance to see a snapshot of a famous,
bikini-clad princess kissing her new lover, and of course we want to see it.
And later we want something more explicit. A generation or so ago,
publishers accepted this basic fact and restrained their photographers.
Today such a view is derided as censorship, as a restriction on our
freedoms, or even as hypocrisy.
So the Princess Diana tragedy -
devastating though it was - has served a purpose, in alerting us to an
elemental fact of human nature. It has forced us to step back and reconsider
problems affecting our society. Magazines have toned down their use of
celebrity photos. In other words, one of our institutions has taken steps to
strengthen the undergirdings of our society.
But this was an exceptional case. (And
even as I write intrusive photos of celebrities are creeping back into
magazines and newspapers.) Increasingly, society’s institutions do not
support the values and ideals that parents wish to pass on to their
children. These institutions have forgotten that we are fallible; that part
of their duty to us, therefore, is to operate within certain limits, and to
In this book I have tried to take a few
steps back from the problems in our society, in order to observe them in a
better light. I am not a child psychologist or other kind of expert. I am a
writer (and a father). My primary aim is to help readers understand what has
happened to our society. I have tried to do this in a readable, stimulating,
thought-provoking and entertaining fashion. From understanding can come
change, and I hope this book can contribute to change in our society.
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