By Walter Williams: Syndicated columnist
Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction,” Nicollette Sheridan’s towel malfunction and naked leap into the arms of Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens in a promotion before ABC’s “Monday Night Football,” and the recent Detroit Pistons/Indiana Pacers game melee are just the most recent signs of a new culture that has emerged among Americans, and it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Years ago, the lowest of lowdown men wouldn’t use the kind of language that’s routinely used today not only in the presence of women but often to women. To see men sitting while a woman was standing on a public conveyance used to be unthinkable. Children addressing adults by their first name was also unthinkable, not to mention the use of foul language in the presence of or to adults. How about guys and girls walking down the street whilst the guy has his hand in the girl’s rear pocket?
What might explain the differences in behavior today versus yesteryear? A significant part of the explanation is seen by recognizing that society’s first line of defense is not the law but customs, traditions and moral values. Customs, traditions and moral values are those important thou-shalt-nots such as: thou shalt not murder, shalt not steal, shalt not lie and cheat. They also include respect for parents, teachers and others in authority plus those courtesies one might read in Emily Post’s rules of etiquette.
The importance of customs, traditions and moral values as a means of regulating behavior is that people behave themselves even if nobody’s watching. There are not enough cops, and laws can never replace these restraints on personal conduct so as to produce a civilized society. At best, the police and the criminal justice system are the last desperate lines of defense for a civilized society. Unfortunately, too many of us see police, laws, and the criminal and civil justice systems as society’s first line of defense.
For nearly a half-century, the nation’s liberals, along with the education establishment, pseudo-intellectuals and the courts, have waged war on traditions, customs and moral values. Many in this generation have been counseled to believe there are no moral absolutes. Instead, what’s moral or immoral is a matter of convenience, personal opinion, or what is or is not criminal.
During the 1960s, the education establishment launched its agenda to undermine lessons children learned from their parents and the church with fads like “values clarification.” So-called sex-education classes were simply indoctrination that sought to undermine family/church strictures against premarital sex.
Lessons of abstinence were ridiculed, considered passe, and replaced with lessons about condoms, birth control pills and abortion. Further undermining of parental authority came with legal and extra-legal measures to assist teenage abortions with neither parental knowledge nor consent.
Customs, traditions, moral values and rules of etiquette, not laws and government regulations, are what make for a civilized society. These behavioral norms, mostly transmitted by example, word of mouth, and religious teachings, represent a body of wisdom distilled through ages of experience, trial and error, and looking at what works and what doesn’t.
Customs, traditions and moral values have been discarded without an appreciation for the role they played in creating a civilized society, and now, we’re paying the price. What’s worse is that instead of a return to what worked, many of us fail to make the connection and insist “there ought to be a law.” As such, it points to another failure of the so-called “great generation” — the failure to transmit to their children what their parents transmitted to them.
Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University. He writes for Creators Syndicate and may be contacted at: