Monday, 17 March 2014

Anthem for hollow youth

The assumption that I make of young people is that they are full of vitality, ambition, drive, and creativity. I assume that they are keen to improve their health and mind, that they want to learn and contribute to the world around them, to defend its precious values such as human rights and the environment.

This belief sustains my great optimism I have for our future as a people – custodians of the planet and enablers of each other.

But beliefs are one thing – driven by assumptions and based often on an idealistic view of the world and its potential: reality is another.

In discussing sociology and psychology A-level topics with my older students, I gain an insight into our some of the driving forces of our youth, and they certainly do not reflect the beauty that youth has to offer.

In three poignant books on girls, sociologists and journalists discuss the third wave of feminism that has emerged in the past two decades. 

The first wave of feminism challenged men’s right to rule the planet and corporations – women asserted their right to enter the professions, get the vote, and become political voices.

The second wave of feminism challenged the preconceptions of women as weaker or less intelligent, as deserving protection by strong men: most importantly it railed against the objectification of woman as sex object.

The third wave of feminism champions women’s sexuality and right to exhibit and strut sexually.

Daily Telegraph
The beginnings of the third wave at first seemed a healthy attempt to find a balance for women: that they did not have to wear the clothing and behavior of men to succeed, that they could be feminine and sexy and still maintain an equality with men.

Unfortunately, the opposite has occurred. The third wave of feminism has reduced the image of young women back to a sex object, an object for male gratification. The relegation is apparent in music videos which act as a window into young people’s culture: what was once “girl power” has become a harem of generic beauties dripping over powerful men. (Find your own image for this - I'm not to keen to hunt down the semi-pornographic images from videos!).

The pressure on girls to conform to the 'sexy' look - generally skinny, done hair, short skirts, and a corresponding vacant look reflected in a lack of interest in high culture, in developing their minds and abilities.

Naturally, we are talking about a sub-culture: but teenagers feel peer pressure a lot to conform - especially if they do not have a great sense of self-esteem.

And self-esteem is in short supply. I'm not going to claim that people's self-esteem has always been high historically or that there was a wonderful golden age from which we are all descending into the abyss - most people are descendants of slaves or villeins and subtly sustain the outlook; and I am quite aware as a philosopher and historian that as we age, we look upon the youth with concern. That's natural - they are living life slightly differently from how we lived it.

Nonetheless, it is not just a single factor at work here undermining teenagers. We have been struggling through the twentieth century down to today - particularly the last forty years - to make sense of what the modern world with its freedoms and reduced social and moral barriers means to us.

Our teenagers are always a thermometer to our culture - their voice, their music, their interests, their ambitions, their energy and sense of moral order will become the world they inherit (and which we older ones will have to endure or enjoy!).  Subcultures are attempts to try out new things - and are often safe mechanisms to permit cultural change - they are wonderful expressions of the angst and sense of self that teenagers and young people struggle with, and in a globalising world it's not surprising to see a multitude of styles emerging and being tested in the fashionable world of the young minds. And why not?

The darker side though is the hollowness of a lot of people. The West is in danger of losing its great cultural foundation of critical thinking, strong sense of self and direction, a mindful approach to life and to others, a stoicism in adversity, an appreciation of the higher arts and culture generally.

Over the past few decades, in the great cultural experimentation we have lived with, there has been a slow but sure dumbing down of the intellect in favour of the pleasures of the body. Our wise thinkers through the ages have warned against hedonism: what replaces the pleasures when the body becomes dulled to the stimuli? A higher high is demanded - and often students of both sexes turn to drugs to get that high. And thereby strip their ability to self-cultivate their mind to great highs.

When the body is inured to external drugs, it becomes harder to produce the same excitation internally. Although, as biochemist Candace Pert points out, we have the pharmacopeia in our bodies to produce any high (or low) we want. When we become dependent on the external supply, we become dependent and we gradually lose our sense of self and hence our strength to be independent.

(Re)sexualisation of the female, the easy access to drugs, the ubiquity of screen media reinforcing stereo-types, the dumbing down of curricula in schools and the exam mill that schools have become (which undermine personal interest and learning generally), the high amounts of sugars that are present in many foods and drinks ('energy drinks...') are all powerful pressures undermining self esteem and criticality in society.

Deeper than that, we have had a hundred years of moral relativism in which good and bad, right and wrong have become 'lifestyle choices'.

Then there's the welfare state, standing in the sidelines to pick up the pieces when people harm themselves, get pregnant, and collapse into a state of unhealthy living (rising obesity and corresponding diabetes levels [cut the carbohydrates], the high rates of hip replacements [get some exercise!] and soaking our skin in a range of industrial chemicals that begin to build up heavy metals in the nervous system.

Then there's schooling. Drilled into passing exams in which statistics matter more than individuals - the critical sense of individuality is relegated to official targets.

Several generations have now been brought up on dumbed down culture, of mass entertainment, of ubiquitous sugary foods and drinks that strip the healthy bio-chemistry of the body. And drugs. If it’s not “recreational” drugs (whatever that means), it’s pharmaceutical drugs for acne or losing weight or not sleeping or anxiety or ADHD (more for the boys).

Russians of the Soviet Union drank a lot of vodka to keep them from the abyss of meaningless. Are we going the same way?

In conversations with one of my pupils, to the head girl from a comprehensive school and sixth form in a relatively affluent market town east of Nottingham, the effects of this hollowness are blatantly apparent. 

She spoke of a high level of promiscuity amongst certain cliques of the girls – not because the girls were in control and demanded a youthful sexual energy akin to the boys – but because they were looking for love, looking to be liked, and would, accordingly, compromise their virtue (and sometimes their health) to be recognized. Her comments were insightful and reflect similar comments I have heard before as well as in the research in books. Hollow girls. The boys? They'll sleep with anyone, smoke whatever's being passed around, get blotto (drunk) on the weekend - look good and 'fit' and be cretinous. 

I have observed the Barbie Army heading into her school in the morning  - certainly a clique rather than the majority – of young girls dressed in a similar fashion but generally vacant in the eyes. Other students have characterized them similarly: shallow, highly made up, often sexually active girls. Look at the toys marketed for girls in the shops. Then look at the teens. Some of them have great role models there.

It's the hollowness that is undermining them and ultimately our chances of making as a civilisation. 

Now there’s nothing new under the sun, we could retort: wanton lasses have always been there (just as there have been promiscuous boys) – our history is replete with stories of young girls getting into trouble right down to the 1970s, when the welfare state picked them up, offered them housing, abortions, and payments to cushion their choices.

But what is new is how prevalent the hollowness is becoming. 

Academically, I often ask some basic questions concerning our culture and history. The ignorance is telling and embarrassing. Many of the pupils I work with do not know the capitals of Europe. The older ones know nothing about the seventeenth century fight for rights. General knowledge provides landmarks for understanding, and it is severely lacking. "Not on the curriculum is it?" And they do not know to care about their ignorance.

In a telling commentary, my pupil explained that she had been accused of taking ecstasy - something the head girl should not be doing. She was devastated by the accusation and then started to realise that the heads were not interested in her health or well-being, but in the school's reputation. It was the facade of 'all is well at the school' that was the dominant theme of her interrogation - not the fact that many of its students took drugs or engaged in promiscuous sex: that did not matter, she realised, as long as the head girl wasn't getting involved and that the school maintained its high level of A-C grades.

Behind the official reputation of "it's a good school" lies a cultural time bomb.

I have emphasised the impact on the girls in this article over that of the boys - the impact there is similar those less visible. Many are plugged in to computer and online games and are similarly losing any sense of self therein.

In my article on the damage that tv does, several readers complained that there was no evidence that screen time can be damaging. Of course the evidence is there: you just have to open your eyes or sit with young people who are plugged in - they have trouble concentrating, they know nothing, they cannot follow simple instructions, they do not have good motor co-ordination (can't play sports well, can't write well), they have poor health, they do not have an imagination and do not have a great work ethic.

Some prefer to ignore the obvious cause-effect relationship and label their child dyslexic or hyperactive or special needs: bull. Except in a very few cases involving brain damage, our minds can be exercise in anything we choose to exercise them in - the brain is plastic.

Some prefer to ignore their girls dressing up like Barbies - perhaps they are Barbie mums in turn? Tv babysitting, nursery at two, bottle-fed, dressed up like little princesses. Our great seventeenth century author, John Locke, warned against calling our girls little princesses!

When we poison the spring, don't be surprised at the effects further down the road.

In raising our children, we are, as Naomi Aldort says, raising ourselves. We need to educate and show by example that the good life is not the seedy, smutty life of (some of) youth culture, but the heights of great art, literature, architecture, and human endeavour. We want character not clones, we need eccentricity that is grounded morally and ambitious creatively. We need to raise the standards and ensure a good moral foundation for our children and ourselves.


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