Nowadays, when one reads the newspapers, it is common to find reports of irresponsible or callous behaviour. Whatever self-serving reasons that might be, they often pale in significance compared to the toll that these actions have taken on others.
"MF Global and the Problems with Murky Accounting" - New York Times, 14 November 2011
"Fight breaks out in line for Black Friday bargains" - Chicago Tribune, 28 November 2011
"Authorities seek suspect in DUI Fatal"
The series of reports on personal misconduct or sheer irresponsibility (e.g. corporate scandals, infidelity scandals, hit-and-run accidents, drink driving, senseless violent behaviour over inconsequential matters and self-absorbed acts) highlights some contemporary social values which could be taking root in our society.While these might be isolated incidents, they warrant our concern because these individuals spanned the age spectrum. They are also not restricted to a particular educational level, income group, race or religion. In short, they could be any one of us.
Today, we live in a hedonistic age, where personal success is now measured by social status and wealth. Hedonism celebrates the individual's pursuit of pleasure and self-gratification, often at the cost of others. Such a mentality is not tenable for a functional society in the long-run. The detrimental effects on our social consciousness arising from the pursuit of instant self-gratification and one-upmanship, which are becoming more and more evident every day. While media exposure might highlight these consequences for our attention, some have also said that we have also become numb to these incidents, gradually allowing them to become the "norm".
However, unlike in the past, the inculcation of the values of delayed gratification, self-denial and concern for others can no longer be left to social institutions like schools and religious organisations. After all, personal behaviour is not the responsibility of society, but of the individual himself. Ultimately, one has to bear the consequences of one’s choices.
As for children, it is vital that parents or even adults set a good example. As the Chinese saying goes, ‘if the upper beam is not straight, the lower one will be slanted too’. Children often apt the behaviour and attitudes of their parents, who play a crucial role in shaping the former's mindset and moral values particularly in the foundation years. While parenting is not easy, parents nowadays often take the easy way out by giving in to their children's demands, or seek to compensate their inability to spend time with them by showering the latter with material gifts. Wrong values or behaviour are not quickly corrected, but allowed to grow and take root instead. The vicious cycle continues in school when teachers are helpless or bound by strict bureaucratic rules to teach the right values to children who have no respect for authority anyway.
Similarly, leaders, whether in political, corporate or social positions, have to be mindful of their responsibility to be role models. While sainthood is not expected, the minimum expectation is for them to be at least of decent character and to pursue goals of a common good, rather than merely abusing one's position for personal advantage. Sadly, such leaders are a rarity today, where corruption, corporate bonuses and infidelity rule the headlines instead.
Moreover, it does not help matters that our current culture, fed by a complicit media, celebrates superficiality over substance, and the short-term over the long-term. People are encouraged to look out for the short-cuts to success, while the warnings about the perils of such mentality are often ignored. Against such a backdrop, it will be indeed an uphill task to practice in ourselves, as well as inculcate the values of hard work, patience and forbearance, given the ever-present temptations around us.
The scenes of social unrest displayed in the Middle East, Europe and the United States have revealed that the so-called stability in the past has merely masked simmering public discontent, which were exacerbated by a growing wealth gap in society. Hedonism was on full display, particularly in the past few decades, when individuals relentlessly indulged in the pursuit of wealth and materialism, often disregarding the crippling toll on both themselves and those around them.
Over the years, the Gini coefficient (an indicator of the wealth gap in a society) has continued to widen in many countries. Testament to this phenomenon, many people at opposing ends of the wealth spectrum, while physically sharing the same country or city, are now leading completely different lives, far removed from one another.
Unfortunately, despite many warnings about the long-term social implications if this phenomenon was not addressed, our society appears to have chosen to downplay this issue, an attitude which only adds to the current widespread dissatisfaction. As we watch the events unfold elsewhere and at home, we should also remind ourselves about how a society which has been scrupulously built up over the years can easily fall apart if socio-economic issues are not dealt with seriously in a timely manner. After all, the physical facade of prosperity, if built upon a weakening social fabric, could easily vanish like a mirage in the desert.
However, it does give one hope when one reads about fellow citizens going the extra mile to do the right thing. People who chose to deny themselves a personal advantage because they knew that it was the wrong thing to do. Their actions or decisions might sometimes even risk mockery by others, which actually reflects more on the current state of our social mores than the individual. Hence, such examples of personal accountability and social responsibility are truly worthy of commendation and emulation. Surely, the selfless and courageous acts of ordinary individuals done in the course of their average day, which some might consider mundane, deserve greater publicity than what we read in the newspapers or watch on TV today.
The ’slouch towards Gomorrah’ does not happen overnight, but on a gradual basis when we allow certain values to take root or condone certain behaviour. Once these values take root, we will be increasingly desensitised to such behaviour, and gradually become a self-absorbed citizenry. It would be most unfortunate if our society, which was carefully built upon the traditional values of our forefathers, is so carelessly withered away by those who come after.