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October 22nd 2017 print

Peter Smith

The Death Throes of Common Decency

Taboos -- traditional ones, at any rate -- were the ballast that kept us on an even keel. Increasingly that is no longer the case, as White House Chief of Staff General John F. Kelly so eloquently reminded the Washington press corps. Instead, policy and discourse is shaped by the sensibilities of jackals

jackal IIIf you didn’t catch White House Chief of Staff, General John F. Kelly, talking to the press about the politicisation of President Trump’s condolences to the wife of a fallen marine, Sgt La David Johnson, you should. This is part of what he said.

You know when I was a kid growing up, a lot of things were sacred in our country. Women were sacred, looked upon with honour. That’s obviously not the case anymore as we see from recent cases. Life – the dignity of life – is sacred. That’s gone. Religion, that seems to be gone as well. Gold Star families, I think that left in the [Democrat] convention over the summer. But I just thought – the selfless devotion that brings a man or woman to die on the battlefield, I just thought that that might be sacred.

Though clearly emotional at times it is amazing that he was able to speak with such composure. General Kelly lost his son, Second Lt. Robert Kelly, to a roadside bomb in Afghanistan in 2010.

It goes without saying that the action of  Democrat congresswoman Frederica Wilson in raising the matter as she did was beyond despicable. It can be made sense of only in a world of seriously declining standards of common decency. This is not about glimpse of a woman’s stocking no longer being shocking. It is about not assuming the worst of each other. I don’t know what Trump said. I believe I know what he meant to say. He meant to say what General Kelly suggested he might say.

He was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into by joining…He knew what the possibilities were because we’re at war… and when he died, he was surrounded by the best men on this earth; his friends.

Maybe it didn’t come out quite right. I don’t know. I know from experience that trying to remember what you are supposed to say in pressurised and emotional situations can get you into more trouble than extemporising. If he mangled it in any way, a quiet word might have had him making amends in one way or another. But, hey, that would have been the decent thing to do.

Theresa May was mocked because she developed a nagging cough during a speech to the ‘faithful’ at the Conservative Party’s recent conference. Who hasn’t had a coughing fit? How in the world does that reflect on her ability as prime minister? Sympathy and understanding would have been the decent response. Instead jackals spotted weakness and pounced.

Recall Tony Abbott when opposition leader making his overheard and immediately-reported comment “shit happens” in 2011. This followed a firefight in Afghanistan in which an Australian soldier, Lance Corporal Jared McKinney, was killed. It was absolutely clear, in context, that Abbott’s comment was not disrespectful.

His comment was aimed, in a comradely manner, at the things that had gone wrong. It was a complete beat-up by some reporters lacking even the rudiments of common decency who took his remarks out of context and tried to make political capital out of a soldier’s death. They were the disrespectful ones.

Personally, I can understand Abbott’s widely derided reaction when pressed by a snot-nosed reporter. He could say nothing that he hadn’t said. Staying silent, for however long, was the more discreet course than bopping the snot-nose on his snot nose, which is precisely what he deserved. Where’s John Wayne when you need him?

I want to go back to General Kelly. It seems to me there may be a causal connection between the decline of Christianity in the life of society and the way in which women are treated and life is valued. Powerful men of immoral disposition have always preyed on vulnerable young women. But taboos make a difference. That’s why well-ordered households and societies have them.

Abortions have always gone on. But how about over a million abortions a year in the US alone, with unborn-baby body parts being sold for profit. Just maybe something has gone seriously wrong with our society. Again, to repeat, because it bears repeating, taboos are there to help to curb the worst aspects and excesses of human nature.

Christianity is full of well-made taboos. It doesn’t stop at ‘thou shalt not kill’; though that is particularly appropriate in respect of abortions on demand. You’re obliged to honour your mother and father; to honour your wife. You’re obliged not to sleep around. You’re obliged to treat other people as you would be treated. To wit, decently.

If I were a typical climate scientist observing the contemporaneous collapse of Christianity and common decency, I would draw a settled conclusion that the two are causally related. However, most of us are not so simple-minded. I can’t say for sure that the decline of Christianity in the West is responsible for the rise of indecency. But, based on current trends, it’s worth asking what a society built on Christian taboos would eventually look like if its foundational inspiration were to go on crumbling. Nothing pretty is my guess.

Peter Smith, a frequent Quadrant Online contributor, is the author of Bad Economics

Comments [9]

  1. Geoffrey Luck says:

    Vulgarity is the denial of manners. It is the post-modernist repudiation of the absolutes of civilised behaviour. This is an ‘anything goes’ world now. Bus and train passengers may find themselves and their fellow travellers subjected to outbursts of the most vile language, and know they are without recourse. Self-control, the ultimate sanction to ensure frictionless socity, seems to have evaporated, at least in certain types and classes of people. When there is no escape from bad manners in public what can be more ironic than campaigns for ‘respect’ ?

  2. Good manners is the oil in the gear box of civilisation, without manners civil society will come to a noisy stop. It will not be pleasant and a lot of decent innocent people will be hurt.

  3. StephenD says:

    History shows that Christianity ALONE is responsible for the high personal standards that marked the rise of Western civilisation. People can read Bertrand Russell or Richard Dawkins or any of the apologists for the Enlightenment until the cows come home, but none of them will turn out decent citizens. The required textbook is the Bible. If anyone has trouble with this idea, it is worthwhile remembering that the Bible is a counterintuitive book necessarily. It does not tell you what you already know. It tells you what you need to know but do not wish to accept.
    In abandoning Christianity, Australia, like the rest of the West, has signed its own death warrant as a civilised society. The activists promoting trends that are clearly destabilising to the social structure – trends such as the sexual revolution, increasing use of abortion, the corruption of history, the abuse of the education system to indoctrinate children – recognise one enemy and one enemy only – Christianity. By turning against Christianity, our society has relinquished its one defence against every kind of evil influence. Do not be deceived. Neither Reason nor Good Manners are going to do the job.

  4. Warty says:

    The intention is not to be picky about choice of words, but to my way of thinking, it is not that we are obligated to honour our parents, or women, or being faithful, because all these things say something about the individual. If one is brought up well, one has an inner understanding of what is right or wrong and follow taboos because one feels highly uncomfortable when one fails to live up to one’s own standards. Those who have few moral standards, possibly don’t experience a sense of guilt. I’d like to think that deep down there might be a level of guilt. But unless the law is being broken, my understanding is that being obligated just wouldn’t cut it with such people, though collectively we are the poorer for it.

    • MattP says:

      Hi Warty, I agree, but I would argue it this way: that we honour our parents, not because we feel obligation, but simply because they love us and have sacrificed their lives for us, as their children. If we cannot find the reciprocity of love in our hearts to honour our parents, then the fall back position is to honour out of a sense of duty.

      The Christian perspective is that we love because first we were loved. We forgive because first we were forgiven. And so on. “Do unto others…” goes hand in glove with “Because I loved first, do likewise.”

      Interestingly, I have heard some pop psychologists tell us that we should not feel guilt over the things we do. That appalls me. Guilt is a barometer to our moral standard.

      • Warty says:

        Guilt is indeed a natural response to wrong-doing, but as the heart ‘hardens’ it become increasingly less apparent in the individual. Atheism tends to lead one in that direction. On the other hand the Left uses identity politics and the politics of guilt to ram through quite a different agenda. They seek to ‘impose’ guilt on white people as a whole, for their alleged wrong-doings in the distant past; guilt for a ‘mind-set’ they were not part of; guilt for the actions of ancestors that lived when there was this different mind-set.
        These ‘pop psychologists’ have got just one part of the equation right, without looking at the whole process: one needs to acknowledge wrong-doing; seek the means to rectifying it (by apologising in a heart-felt way/ going to confession, if one is Catholic and genuinely offering it up etc).
        Wrong-doing is not all negative, in that one can learn from it (having acknowledged it in the first place); be strengthened by the experience and the fact that it has become part of the individual (in a character building sort of way). The whole thing about ‘trigger warnings’ and the tendency of wanting to protect people from offensive speech/actions etc. is that this modern trend towards quarantining doesn’t allow for character-building.
        As some wise bloke said (I don’t remember who): ‘the past is another country where they do things differently’.