To measure how our society has changed,
just take a look at the death notices in your local newspaper.
It is in these ads
that relatives and friends, at a time of great distress, sometimes try to
encapsulate in a sentence or two the qualities they admired most in the
deceased. The notices must be written quickly, and it is certainly not
disrespectful to say that the writers often resort to cliché. Or they make
an effort to list all those qualities of which they imagine society is most
Thus, a couple of
generations ago, relatives sometimes included in obituaries such qualities
of character as courage, hard work and honesty: all of them traditional
virtues. It was possible to read notices such as the following, from 1954
editions of The Age.
Beloved brother of Mabel and Fred Bigot. His good deeds, countless as grains
of sand, will live on.
Loving wife of John Bransby. A long and patient sufferer at rest.
Sentiments like these
today sound quaint and old-fashioned. Many people would be embarrassed to
insert them in a public notice in the newspaper. Death notices nowadays are
more likely to resemble the following, from 1997 and 1998 notices in The
Age and the Herald Sun.
In loving memory of Uncle Don. One of life’s big characters. His big laugh
and generous heart will be sadly missed by us.
Your great sense of humour and relaxed outlook will surely be missed. You
have been a wonderful friend.
A great mate for many years. We shared such special times together. The
memories are always with us.
In memory of a fine gentleman who will be fondly remembered for his roguish
winks and knowing smiles. It was a great pleasure to have known you.
A kind, gentle cobber and gentle-man. It was a pleasure and privilege to
call him our ‘Friend’.
I knew him as a life-long true friend of infinite wit, charm and sporting
character. Never to be forgotten by any who were privileged to know him.
You’re remembered for your big warm hugs and cheeky smile. You enlightened
us with many entertaining conversations and gave us many laughs. We love you
and thank you for being a part of our lives.
Farewell dear friend, we shared many happy times with you and Val. We will
miss you (and your sausage sizzles).
There are still
notices that refer to qualities like strength, courage and faith. But these
are far fewer than before. What has brought about such a change?
Quite simply, we no
longer put as much emphasis on a person’s character as we used to. Instead,
we concentrate on personality. It is another of those changes that speak
volumes about what has happened to our society.
Of course, there is
nothing wrong with infinite wit, a sporting character or a knowing smile.
They are all admirable qualities in a person, and most of us would surely
value as a friend someone with those personality traits (certainly more so
than a morally upright, virtuous prig), provided that person was not also
dishonest, disloyal or full of hate.
But what the
obituaries tell us is that we have downgraded character, which often seems
to be held in low regard. Perhaps it is simply that we have become
embarrassed about citing a person’s honesty, patience or wisdom. It is
almost as if we are showing off, or somehow judging that person.
Yet as we saw at the
funeral, in 1993, of the war hero Sir Edward “Weary” Dunlop (the subject of
Chapter 17 of this book), people are still capable of recognising and
responding to heroic deeds.
Unfortunately, we live
in an age of cynicism about good works. People have become confused. Just a
generation or so ago it was quite easy to affirm that, say, Sir Winston
Churchill or the Reverend Martin Luther King were great men. Now we are not
so sure. New books have told us of the drunken foibles of Churchill, and
newspapers have revealed that King was a womaniser who may have cheated at
But this does not
erase, or even (in my opinion) diminish, their magnificent achievements. It
simply means they were human, and like all humans they were fallible. They
were not perfect. But nevertheless they were people whose great deeds can be
held up as models worthy of emulation.
It is important that
we understand the difference between character and personality. Character
tendencies, such as honesty, courage and patience, are to a large extent
acquired through our own actions, in continual practice and repetition. That
is as Aristotle taught us.
personality traits - such as shyness, a quick temper, a happy disposition, a
bubbly and extroverted nature, and so on - tend to develop through our
upbringing and life experiences, and by the time we are adults they are not
always easy to change.
That is why we tend to
hold people responsible for their dishonesty, cowardice or lack of
self-restraint, but not for their shyness. It is a foundation of character,
not of personality, that is most important for the individual and for
society, and, until recently, when we evaluated people, we generally looked
at their character.
One of the main agents
for this change has been our media, which take an obsessive interest in the
personalities of public figures. Women’s magazines, in particular, now
devote extreme attention to personality, where once they emphasised
Nowhere is this switch
more apparent that in the magazines’ attitude to the Royal Family, which has
swung from adulation to mockery. Reports of, say, a royal tour of Africa -
like that by Princess Margaret quoted at the head of this chapter - may
sound as if they were written by
Dame Edna Everage,
but at least they assumed that the person written about was a person of
character, someone who lived by a set of standards to which we should all
It may be that the
Royal Family have brought many of their problems on themselves by their
silly behaviour, and perhaps this helps explain why the women’s magazines
have turned on them so savagely: a sense of betrayal; a feeling of having
been made to look stupid. In any case, the Royals now are subjects of
ridicule or pity. They are only sometimes presented as people of character;
often they are portrayed as unfortunates whose strange personalities derive
from a warped upbringing in dysfunctional families. This startling reversal
is especially sad because our women’s magazines used to be such an integral
part of the infrastructure that supported our families. They were a bedrock
of reliability, helping battling mothers cope with life.
To pick up the
Australian Women’s Weekly or Woman’s Day now, and compare them
with the same publications of several decades ago, is to find revealed not
just different magazines but a quite different ethos.
In the “olden” days (a
generation or so ago), they presented recipes, gardening advice, medical
hints, parenting wisdom, pages and pages of dressmaking, movie news, social
jottings, home remodelling and solid, sensible counsel on life in general.
It was certainly old-fashioned by today’s standards, but it was appropriate
to the time. “Girls are brought up on the old adage that Mother knows best,”
a typical article began. “But for boys the words of wisdom that help build
their characters come from Father.”
in an essay “Reflections of a Sceptical Feminist”, published in the book
Double Take, commented:
The transformation of
downmarket women’s magazines from comfortable and sensible purveyors of
traditional femininity into whinge and titter rags in which most heroines
are victims suggests that large numbers of women have not been won to
emancipation. The Australian Women’s Weekly, New Idea and
Woman’s Day used to be open to current events and feminist issues: now
only the women’s glossies carry reasonable discussions of issues….The
downmarket publications will not discuss a topic unless it is encapsulated
in a heart-rending or salacious personal story.
development among these magazines has been the manner in which they have so
uncritically embraced the American self-esteem, self-expression and
self-help movements, which might better be described as the self-love
movements. It is a sad irony that as our society brings down heroes like
Winston Churchill and Martin Luther King we elevate instead…ourselves.
We sometimes saw our
heroes as gods, which, of course, they never were. Now we see ourselves as
divine, which we certainly are not.
On the surface, there
is, of course, nothing wrong with high self-esteem. Some studies have shown
a positive correlation between high self-esteem and other desirable
attributes such as exam and sports success, an ability to make friends and
the capacity to resist peer pressure. But problems start when we make high
self-esteem an end in itself, rather than seeing it as a desirable result of
As Aristotle made
clear centuries ago, our feelings of enduring happiness and well-being
derive from performing the right actions. They cannot be separated from
action, or derived in any other way.
In other words, as
Professor Martin Seligman has pointed out, low self-esteem does not
cause failure. Rather, it is failure that causes low self-esteem. “If we, as
parents and teachers, promote the doing-well side of self-esteem, the
feeling-good side, which cannot be taught directly, will follow.” He said
that it is pointless to try to teach children to feel good. Rather (writing
about America), he said, they should be taught the skills of doing well:
“how to study, how to avoid pregnancy, drugs and gangs, and how to get off
The point is that high
self-esteem is not linked just to favourable attributes, but can also be
connected to many that are not desirable. Research in America has shown high
levels of self-esteem by many wife beaters, neo-Nazis and members of racist
groups like the Ku Klux Klan. Many school bullies and violent criminals are
found to have self-esteem in spades. One particular survey found that a
number of people who risked their lives to help fleeing Jewish refugees
during World War II actually possessed very low self-esteem.
Several years ago a
survey of mathematics ability among 13-year-olds in a dozen countries found
South Koreans top and Americans bottom. But the survey also asked students
the question: do you think you are good at mathematics? Americans mostly
answered yes, Koreans no. (One American commentator said: “We’re winning the
self-esteem war; it’s only the math war we’re losing.”)
I mentioned this story
to my wife, who is Korean. She agreed that at her schools (where there were
up to 65 in a class) the kids were continually exhorted to do better, and
were often left with the feeling that a little more effort was needed, even
when they had performed extremely well. As a result, a lot of people went
through life feeling uncertain and ill at ease. She said many Koreans
admired and envied Westerners for their self-confidence and their apparent
ability to mix so freely with outsiders.
A further danger of
making self-esteem a goal is that it is then often achieved by artificial
means. So it needs continual reinforcement. And, while it is assumed that
self-esteem is the opposite of self-hate, there is plenty of evidence that
in fact they are two sides of the same coin - that the person whose
self-esteem slips, quickly descends into self-loathing.
Another problem is
that once you start telling yourself that you are a fantastic person, then
you also think that all your actions are fantastic as well. Soon it is just
your own subjective feelings that determine how you behave. You lose all
The women’s magazines
have also become willing partners in the self-help push (which is often the
same as the self-esteem movement). Again, this is telling readers to look
within when they have problems; to try to become perfect in a frenzy of
self-obsession, rather than looking outside. Previously women with problems
were told to look outside themselves; now they are told to look within,
largely forgetting the problems of the world.
The goal of bettering
oneself is wholly admirable. But to imagine that we can become perfect - or
even that we ourselves are divine, as some self-help preachers instruct - is
not simply to ignore my contention that we are fallen people, but to fly in
the face of common sense.
No matter how hard we
try, we do silly little things; we slip up; and some of our slips become
major problems in our lives. The problem with thinking we can be perfect is
that we sometimes find ourselves on a desperate cycle, with each inevitable
failure leading to self-doubt and despair.
In its extreme form,
the desire for self-esteem and perfection can lead to narcissism. According
to DSM-IV, the definitive
American psychiatric manual - popularly known as “the shrink’s handbook” -
symptoms include: a grandiose sense of self-importance; a pre-occupation
with fantasies of unlimited success, power and brilliance; believing oneself
to be special or understood only by other special or high-status people; a
need for excessive admiration; an expectation of special privileges; an
exploitative personality; envy of others; arrogance; and a lack of empathy
for others’ problems.
It may sound like your
boss, or perhaps like most of your best friends. It is, in fact, a medical
condition known as narcissistic personality disorder.
If you are in your
50s, like me, your grandparents probably passed on to your parents the
message that self-restraint, hard work, sacrifice and service would
eventually be rewarded; maybe you, too, received this communication.
But this message is
not being passed on to kids today, and one reason is that too many parents,
encouraged by trends in our culture, are indulging their whims in
self-obsessed behaviour. Instead of teaching their children to think of
others, they are teaching them - consciously and unconsciously - to indulge
themselves. There has been a break in the chain of passing down values from
generation to generation.
And it is here that
great dangers lie for our society. William Damon, whom I have quoted already
in this book, is explicit in his work
Greater Expectations about what could happen:
Without each new
generation of children learning a collective sense of social responsibility,
society can have no future. Without learning an obligation to serve and
respect others, children cannot develop a sense of social responsibility.
Exactly this is the gravest danger in societies that have lost touch with
the need to foster in their children an obligation to serve others.
Societies that have lost this knack may be not much more than a generation
away from ceasing to be civilised societies at all.
* Next chapter
* Previous chapter
Table of contents
* Send a comment
* If you enjoy this book, please consider a donation