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Maxim Institute - real issues - No. 290

Real Issues No. 290 – Honour, Consumerism, Culture
Maxim Institute - real issues - No. 290
28 February 2008

What happened to honour?
Caught betwixt consumerism and childhood
Cultural change has to start somewhere

New Bill tackles policing issue
Valuing our elderly


British soldiers 'are to be issued with a guide to moral behaviour, to be carried in their top pockets,' reports The Times newspaper. According to The Times, the new drive to reinforce what Sir Richard Dannatt, chief of the general staff, calls 'the Army's values,' has been prompted by a rise in 'yob culture,' 'loutish behaviour among off duty soldiers,' 'allegations' of prisoner maltreatment in Iraq, and 'the rise in illegal drug taking.' The 'guides' will emphasise 'moral and ethical behaviour, including loyalty, courage and respect for other people.'

It is easy in a cynical modern age to dismiss the reinforcement of moral norms as a project of Puritans and wowsers. But the British Army's code of conduct project brings home to us quite starkly the importance of character. We none of us live perfect lives. But morality in itself is about more than that; it is about an inward, if imperfect, disposition towards the good, the right, and the true -- what we view as normative, who we aspire to be, what kind of institution, what kind of country, what kind of person. It is the old-fashioned idea of 'honour' that Sir Richard Dannatt hinted at when he talked last September about the Army 'educat[ing] ourselves in our core values.'

Internal character acts as a check on loutishness, quickly owns up to wrong, and if imperfectly, also acts honourably. In a life-or-death situation, or one which could have consequences for many thousands, moral character in the army ceases to be dismissible, and becomes something to crave, to chase and to honour. Soldiers desperately need every ounce of bravery, judgement and character they can muster, not just because it is a nice idea, but because we all depend on it. The assistance offered by this 'guide' is therefore welcome. It is, however, something of a concern that these moral truths are apparently no longer evident to us all. This is the challenge for the whole of society, not just the Army -- to instil the character and values that make decent citizens of us all.


Results released this week as part of The Good Childhood Inquiry -- an ongoing study into the modern-day childhood -- has shown that consumerism is having a negative impact on the mental health of children. This research illustrates the need to protect the innocence and vulnerability of children, rather than treat them as mini-consumers.

The Good Childhood Inquiry is a six-themed study, conducted by the British charity, The Children's Society, which will eventuate in a report focusing on family, friends, learning, lifestyle, health and values. The latest evidence summary to be released is on children's lifestyle, and looks at a number of issues including spare time, the media, technology and drugs and alcohol. In producing this summary, public opinion was sought from across the United Kingdom, as well as submissions from a wide range of professionals including psychologists, religious leaders, teachers and MPs, as well as parents and children.

One important theme that the evidence has uncovered is an increasing concern with the influence that consumerism and 'commercial pressures' are having on the mental health of children. A link is made between the increase in problems of mental health in children and 'the increasing degree to which children and young people are preoccupied with possessions.'

Bob Reitemeier, Chief Executive of The Children's Society, suggests that 'the growth in consumerism has coincided with a measured decline of shared beliefs, of ideology and faith,' and that 'so much of consumerism is reliant on selling an unattainable dream in which consumers are often disappointed and left wanting more.' This continual exposure to consumerism is leading children to have an increased focus and dependence on material goods, resulting in higher rates of mental illnesses such as depression where children feel they are not keeping up with everyone else.

It is difficult in our postmodern, consumer-driven society to protect children from the pressures of materialism. The results in this research summary show that harm is being caused by our material focus, and we should be doing more to ensure our children are protected from this approach. Children should not be treated as mini-consumers, but rather as young people who need to learn the importance of, and to value, friends, family and community. Reitemeier sums it up well by recommending that 'perhaps the dreams we should be encouraging our children to follow are about the good life well lived and based on values which help unite us rather than emphasise individualism.'

Visit The Good Childhood Inquiry website


Read The good childhood inquiry: what you told us about lifestyle



The reaction to cricketer Jesse Ryder's recent antics is illustrative of a deeper problem which is allowing our binge drinking culture to thrive. After yet another drunken escapade involving a high-profile sportsman, you would have thought it was time for an admission that those whom others look up to carry a certain responsibility. It may have been one silly reckless night for Ryder, but it is the cumulative impression created by certain of our sporting heroes that helps create a culture where weekend binge drinking round town is seen as a desirable pastime.

Culture's a tricky thing to define or measure, ultimately it is comprised of everyday discrete actions. It is often the repeated activities of those others look up to that makes something popular. This week both of these have been evident. Some have tried to excuse Ryder's behaviour suggesting the 'culture' is to blame. At the end of the day though our culture cannot change until people start to stand against current norms and make different decisions, personally taking responsibility for their actions. Standing up courageously and acting against culture is always difficult and those who lead -- whether institutionally or culturally, as Jesse Ryder does -- could make that decision a whole lot easier by breaking with the norm and not drinking so heavily.

A new study in Australia shows that amongst 16 and 17 year olds, as many as 1 in 5 are binge drinking. Without a cohesive vision and a sense of meaning and purpose, it is no wonder that so many of us are finding it hard to exercise the self-control necessary to act responsibly. Courage and standing against something means having a sense of certainty about what we are for and why. We need to ask what is lacking in our culture when so many people are prepared to view getting through the week so they can 'live' at the weekend as the goal.



The Policing Bill has passed its first reading in Parliament and has been sent to the Law and Order Committee for consideration. The Bill, which was drafted following a comprehensive review and public consultation process, will update the current law on policing, seeking to 'confirm and strengthen Police governance, accountability and organisation arrangements.' The Bill rightly has wide cross-party support and would implement some significant changes, including structural changes around the employment and disciplinary schemes of police employees, and the implementation of a code of conduct for all police officers.

Public submissions are being accepted by the Law and Order Committee until 28 March 2008.

Read the Policing Bill http://www.parliament.nz/NR/rdonlyres/0EA5D3E6-A495-4E4E-8FA0-54576ABC97AF/73620/DBHOH_BILL_8396_57596.pdf

Find out more about making a submission http://www.maxim.org.nz/index.cfm/Take_Action


A welcome new report from the Families Commission identifies the factors that contribute to 'elder abuse.' This qualitative research study conducted a number of interviews with 'older people,' as well as 'service providers, community groups and NGOs.' Factors that contribute to, or inhibit against, abuse were classified into a number of levels: 'individual,' 'family,' 'institutional,' 'community,' 'society' and 'cultural.' At the family level a strong 'protective factor' was 'caring relatives' while at the societal level 'strong themes emerged about the undervaluing of older people in society as a whole.' It is important that this qualitative study is followed up with a comprehensive quantitative study to ascertain the level of 'elder abuse' in our communities. With value increasingly measured by what we can do, rather than who we are, work needs to be done to reverse this trend and focus on the intrinsic value of the older members of our community.

Read Elder abuse and neglect - Exploration of risk and protective factors http://www.familiescommission.govt.nz/files/elder-abuse-and-neglect-report.pdf


'Moral excellence comes about as a result of habit. We become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.'


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Maxim Institute's regular email publication, Real Issues, provides thought-provoking analysis of developments in policy and culture in New Zealand and around the world. You can express you views on any of the articles featured in Real Issues by writing a letter to the editor. A selection of the best letters will be posted each week on Maxim Institute's website http://www.maxim.org.nz/.


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