In all honesty, I really don’t care if John Terry has had an affair and I’m more astounded, in a non-approving sense of course, than upset by the ever-growing list of Tiger Woods’ extra-marital relations. Equally, I’m not really all that bothered by the recreational drug use of Kate Moss, Amy Winehouse, Pete Doherty, and the like
It seems odd to me that people in the public eye are judged according to criteria that are entirely irrelevant to the talents that have made them famous.
What does being a sportsperson have to do with fidelity? Why are musicians supposed to be models of sobriety? And how does being good-looking relate to responsible behaviour?
The common answer to questions like these is that those in the public eye are role models to children. This familiar response is accurate in both an uninteresting and an evasive sense. It is uninteresting because to a certain extent everyone is a role model to our children and it is evasive because it completely ignores the fact that we, that is, society as a whole, decide upon who enters the public eye.
More importantly, it raises a further question: who do we actually want to be role models to the young?
If you think about it, it is not clear why celebrities should be seen as role models at all. This is especially true given the increasingly questionable routes via which people attain fame; our current definition of celebrity actually selecting the very worst role models to be in the public eye.
The fact that they are seen as such is, I think, related to a collective, though perhaps unperceived, abdication of adult responsibility. Society’s communal responsibility to set examples, instead of being discharged by society as a whole, is outsourced to the fantasy land of celebrity. The essentially collective task of establishing, maintaining, and abiding by acceptable standards of behaviour is projected onto those who possess certain singularly cherished talents, none of which have any obvious correlation with exemplary behaviour or ethical conduct.
We have transformed the exceptionally talented few into an impossibly burdened elite.
Not only to do with our celebration of celebrity for its own sake, the sense in which adults have abdicated their collective responsibility for the rearing of the young is emphasised and exacerbated by the emergence of two further key trends.
The first of these emphasises a denial of responsibility on the part of society and it is characterised by a phrase that is said to capture all that is now wrong with our once great country. A phrase so pertinent that it is said to be the first intelligible words of many a thirteen year old thug. A phrase so resonant that much of the rest of the world actually believe it to be the new and official name of our noble and sacred isle.
Fortunately for David Cameron, the primary peddler of ‘Broken Britain’ rhetoric, the catchphrase is not lacking in currency with the public. Although much of its potency comes from the implicit reference to the much ignored and ever thorny issue of immigration and the loss of national identity, the ‘broken Britain’ refrain also typically expresses a strong disapproval of the behaviour of young people.
Almost any complaint about modern day British society can be, and is, wheeled out as an example of broken Britain: gangs and youth crime, antisocial behaviour, teenage pregnancy, and binge drinking. In this sense the idea that we now live in a ‘broken society’ derives much of its strength from its ambiguity.
Now, quite obviously, all of these issues have complex and multifarious explanations, none of which are adequately expressed by the use of a vague and lazy alliterative phrase. The one thing that they do have in common is that they are all examples of the way in which the youth of today are demonised.
The demonisation of the youth is, of course, not a new phenomenon; generation after generation in adult society have disapproved of the actions and the values of their young. What is worth marvelling at, however, is the ability of generation after generation to forget the fact that they were ever young themselves. The collective amnesia now exhibited by many of the children of the sixties is a timely and particularly frustrating example of this.
Nonetheless, suppose that we accept, for the sake of argument, that the youth of today are bad in a way that the youth of days gone by were not, or were not seen to be – perhaps we are ruder, scarier, and uglier. The responsibility for this fact surely must rest squarely on the shoulders of the generation that raised us.
Indeed, how could it be any different?
From all the hand-wringing and lamenting, one could not be blamed for thinking that the current generation of young people were spontaneously generated from the seed of Beelzebub himself and are entirely unrelated to their predecessors.
The ‘Broken Britain’ rhetoric implies a helplessness or lack of culpability on the part of the previous generation. The truth is, however, that for all of our flaws we are the children of those that came before us. It is about time that the previous generation woke up to that fact and accepted their responsibility for ‘Broken Britain’, or at least raising the generation that ‘broke’ Britain.
The second of the two trends exacerbates the extent to which adult society in general is no longer responsible for the raising of children.
The increasing obsession with vetting and child protection, exemplified by the government’s recent plans for the database registration of all adults who work with children, is a significant and worrying development. It actually undermines the ability of adults to act as effective role models to children, by eroding at the relationship between them.
Although cases such as that of the policewoman not allowed to look after her neighbour’s daughter because she was not a registered child-minder are ridiculed as instances of political correctness gone mad, the general assumption of fear is accepted. The interactions between the old and the young are now viewed through a prism of suspicion, with those much needed individuals who choose to work with children now forced to prove that they are not potential abusers.
Not only is this an overreaction to the actually quite rare incidence of the horrifying cases that make it into the press, but it is also misplaced given that the overwhelming proportion of children that are abused are abused by people with whom they are already familiar.
It is almost trivial for me to say, without equivocation, that every case of abuse is a tragedy.
But to respond to the occurrences of these tragedies by understanding all relations between adults and children in terms of danger and risk is to corrode and tarnish perhaps the most important of all social relations.
It is of course impossible to shield children from all potential harm, the attempt to do so being exemplified by the abstract and nonsensical idea that it is conceivable to give anyone ‘the best’ childhood.
This idea is exampled by the popularity of shows like ‘Supernanny’ and government plans to produce parenting manuals. Both of which point to a professionalization of parenting and further erode at the relationships between adults and children, by undermining the organicity and spontaneity that is essential to all parent-child relationships.
The two trends parallel each other. On the one hand, childhood is demonised, with adults not taking responsibility for their role in raising the young. On the other, childhood is sanitised, with adults denied the ability to act as effective role models and partake in the raising of the young.
Together they undermine the natural and legitimate role of adults in society, and our doomed-to-fail celebrities are a very poor substitute.