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Living Water
to Light the Journey


Chapter Three

Whinge and Titter Rags



The amazing part of Princess Margaret’s new sophistication is the way she can organise her programme almost without the help of courtiers. She has a natural aptitude for mixing with people, and a delightful independence. Those she meets are genuinely impressed, and across the red carpet the crowds are wildly enthusiastic. Every day on the tour Princess Margaret springs a surprise. She wore no gloves at a small press reception in Government House - the first time a Royal lady without gloves has shaken hands with men of every colour. And the handshake was warm, friendly and firm. She called to a waiter refilling her glass, “And not so much gin this time.”…Mauritians say Margaret is the most exquisite visitor to come to their tiny shores. Her clothes have been approved as very chic and the colours are perfect against the blue of the sea and sky.

Australian Women’s Weekly, 17 October 1956

 

The soap opera of Meg’s love affairs and secret passions - for passions they certainly were - kept Britain and the world agog. The rest of the royal household was all but ignored as the royal pin-up went through her romantic hoops, endlessly searching in the wrong places for the right royal partner. Margaret was a born exhibitionist in her youth. She smoked through an elegant, long cigarette holder, drank just a little to excess and stayed out late at nightclubs—particularly, when she got the chance, Parisian nightclubs. She thought nothing of snatching up a guitar, or a drumstick, and joining the band if the party needed livening up. She would get up and dance solo if the music was right - and how she could dance! She would take the microphone and sing blues music with tears in her eyes. At a Thames riverboat party once, she took off her shoes and stockings and led a mambo line around the deck, swinging one stocking around her head….The scandals went on….But the super girl who danced barefoot in the ‘50s became the tragic royal of the ‘70s and ‘80s, battling alcohol, nicotine, overweight, depression and cancer.

Australian Women’s Weekly, June 1989

 

Self-expression is fine if you’ve got an interesting self to express. But what makes a self interesting is precisely that it’s gone through a rigorous process of discipline and order and self-understanding that, for instance, Milton went through. Self-expression that hasn’t done that is just embarrassing.

Roger Scruton

Salon, April 1998

  

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 appreciative.

 

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 university.

 

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.

 

By contrast, 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 character.

 

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 aspire.

 

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.”

 

Thus writer Beatrice Faust, 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.

 

Another unfortunate 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 our actions.

 

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 child psychologist 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 welfare.”

 

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 objective standards.

 

 

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.



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