“We had come to the end of a period of breathtaking technological advances with our moral and social development back in the Stone Age.” — Maxine Schnall, “Limits — A Search for New Values”
I still refer to “Limits,” especially when I am writing about anything philosophical or related to society and culture. Seems Schnall’s concern about the direction we were going in the ’80s is even more pertinent in today’s culture. What happened?
We see so many around us wallowing in greed, materialism and obsession with self that it is obvious that there are some important moral concepts that haven’t been taken seriously for decades. As Schnall wrote: “We must break our silence with those moral truths that have not been eroded by time and social change. However unsure we are of how to meld them with the particular circumstances of contemporary life, we must still speak out for the major human values imbedded in our collective conscious throughout our history: honesty, responsibility and decency.”
Now consider a new book by Henry Giroux, “America at War with Itself.” He writes: “The greatest threat to young people … comes from societies that refuse to invest in their children, that permit millions of families to vanish into poverty, that reduce creative learning to mind-deadening testing programs, that promote policies that eliminate crucial health care and public services, and that define masculinity through the degrading celebration of gun culture, extreme sports and the spectacles of violence that permeate corporation-controlled media products.”
Blatant disregard for morality, ethics, principles and constructive values (all which relate to Schnell’s concerns) is all around us. Examples are dishonesty and lack or conscience of a great many government leaders. Our pathologically narcissistic president is a poignant example especially when he shamelessly and blatantly contradicts himself. Add self-indulgent and immoral religious hucksters, corporate greed and crime that causes widespread suffering, flagrant disregard (whether by the individual or institutions) for the welfare of other human beings, dulling our senses with addictions — whether to alcohol, drugs, food, mindless materialism, sex or religion. Too few of us take responsibility for our actions, live with awareness for the benefit of the whole and possess a sense of community. As Giroux wrote: “A society inundated with violence gains credence when its political leaders give up on the notions of the common good, social justice and equality.”
Setting our limits does not mean that we have to revert back to the old authoritarian model in our search for something better than the “I’ll get mine at any cost,” “I’ll do as I please,” “I’ll close my eyes to the truth” mentality. We must individually discover that closing ourselves off from eternal truths eventually destroys us individually and collectively. We must blend what has always been true from the past — the basic values — with what is best about the newer (self-authorization and individual potential) and thoughtfully determine our own limits so we become strong, confident and ethical.
For some time, education has been focusing on test results and these days many parents take little time to spend with their children. Add the distraction of so many electronic devices, rampant greed, materialism and self-obsession in today’s culture. How are our young people going to learn and absorb the essential qualities that Schnall and Giroux wrote about and which are so essential to the success of any society? As Giroux so poignantly put it: “America is in the grip of an authoritarian culture in which ignorance and the inability to think independently prevail.”
Children must be taught and learn from example that living in a way that promotes health (physical, emotional, mental and spiritual) for ourselves and others is the basis of a good life. They must learn when they are breaking the laws of nature and what their (and our) limits must be. They need to be taught that a great deal of human misery stems from refusing to pay attention to what we all have within us — that little inner voice that can develop our inclination toward doing what is best for us, our loved ones and society. This foundation of their moral strength must be encouraged to flourish.
It is only by following the guidance of a healthy conscience that we will have the confidence to know not only what we will do, but also what we will not do, according to our own and society’s best interest. Our ethical choices must not be blunted by ignorance, fearful compliance or narcissistic self-obsession. They must be elevated by education, honesty and compassion.
“Although learning to make sacrifices may be unpleasant. Trying to be happy without giving something up for others is impossible.” — Eugene Kennedy, “The Looming Eighties.”
Since 1984, Dorothy Dimitre has written more than 1,000 columns for various local newspapers. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.