The moral malaise

February 3, 1995

Where else can we say to the world 'remember the morality of the human condition' if not here." Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel was last week speaking at Auschwitz, 50 years after the liberation of the Nazi death camp. It is true that if the horrors of the Holocaust can be casually forgotten, the legion of lesser crimes against humanity stands little chance of remaining in the collective memory.

Time, of course, can be a great healer. But there are some things which should never be forgotten - and for Wiesel not forgiven either. The fear of the fin de siecle must be that while we have ascended to an unprecedented comfort zone, we are fast descending into an abyss of immorality - and worse, amorality - where there can be no recollection of evil. We are embarrassed by moral stances. We dither or shrug when faced by wickedness. We use moral values like tolerance, and arguments about the harm inflicted by pious crusaders, to excuse our own avoidance of danger and sacrifice so we can stay out of the world's trouble spots. Even on the domestic front, there are neon signs of moral decay, from the emergence of the obscenely-high pay packet to the virtual extinction of the principled resignation. Such is the legacy of post-modernism.

In her new book Imagination and Time, Mary Warnock contends that it is becoming increasingly difficult to engage the imagination of children in moral, as opposed to other values, such as those of various kinds of pleasure or satisfaction. She points to "our uneasiness with the language of morals", observing that making moral judgements is now "thought to be something we none of us have any right or any authority to do"(see p.18 ).

For Baroness Warnock, the answer to this moral malaise resides in education. Tutors, she says, should "pluck up their courage" and use the word "wrong" when penalising cases of bullying, cheating, theft and violence. That she is advancing such solutions, like the public indignation over executive greed, may however indicate a new wave of moral fierceness which runs from the Child Support Agency's attempts to make parents support their children through to today's uncompromising Islamicism. But whose morals, what values are to be preached in these days when, for many, religious injunction provides no answer?

Next week Amnesty International's annual series of lectures at Oxford University sponsored by The THES begins in the Sheldonian Theatre (see pages 18-19). The speakers, all talking on the subject of dissidence and literature, are a reminder that there are people ready "to pluck up their courage", ready to speak up for what they believe, ready to risk even their own freedom. The Bangladeshi feminist, Taslima Nasreen, is currently in hiding in Sweden, having been made the subject of at least one fatwa. The Egyptian novelist, Nawal El Saadawi, lives in the United States, having been first thrown into jail by President Anwar Sadat and then forced to flee by Islamic fundamentalists who served her with countless death threats. The Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka has regularly been forced into exile in order to avoid arrest. The others, Gore Vidal, Edmund White and Andre Brink (whose lecture starts off the series), have all been subjected to censorship as they tested the limits of the vaunted tolerance of their societies.

Taking up the challenge in its various manifestations - political, religious, racial and sexual - made them victims. Yet they need not have bothered. Doctors, professors, generally from the contented middle classes, these speakers could quite easily have remained silent. Their choice of the more hazardous route makes them perfect representatives of Amnesty International, which has survived many skirmishes, risking unpopularity, harrassment, ridicule, and which this year celebrates its 34th birthday. By definition the causes it takes up - some matters of life and death, some more subtle - bring it under fire from the established cannons of authority. It occupies a paradoxical position, fighting with fundamentalist faith for liberal values, pitting that morality against others less forgiving. Like its symbol - a flickering candle wrapped by imprisoning barbed wire - Amnesty is a beacon of light in a world which has never stopped demonstrating the truth of that most savage of Hobbesian observations: homo homini lupus. It proclaims a shared sense of what is right and wrong, of basic values which transcend all regions, all races and all religions. But the barbed wire reminds us that moral values are harsh, awkward things, hard to hold and - like a candle in the wind - easily snuffed out.

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