Role Models, Respect and … Flopping Plants?

shapeimage_2.jpg“Manners maketh man,” insisted William of Wykeham, the fourteenth century English churchman and Chancellor of England to Richard II. So significant is this wisdom that it was adopted as the official motto for Winchester College, Oxford; reflecting the ethos envisioned for its students and pupils. For more than half a millennium it has served as a reminder that a person’s real worth is to be measured, not by the outward or accidental circumstances of birth and fortune, nor by the mere acquisition of higher learning, but by ethical existence and moral achievements.

Glitches on the Magic Roundabout

The recent inquest into last September’s shooting of Manchester teenager Jessie James, for refusing to be part of a gang, has once again spotlighted the issue of gang culture, youth behaviour, and the need for positive role models for young people.1 We must, of course, as social commentators point out, avoid reducing complex issues to simplistic solutions. We should recognize that the absence of role models is just one dimension in a complicated matrix of problems. Young people today, for instance, must navigate their way through an array of malign social and commercial influences: record producers, film makers, video-game manufacturers and advertisers glamorizing guns, violence, and the culture of hyper-individualism in their pursuit for ever more profits.

Education is another problem, with many blaming the ethos of moral relativism adopted in Britain’s schools and universities in the early seventies (which came on the back of the anti-authoritarian movements of the late sixties).2 What this did, in effect, was to undermine the relationship between teacher and pupil by insisting that children not be taught any concrete body of rules, morals or even national identity. Education, from here on in, would be progressive and ‘child-centred’: teachers could no longer lead pupils in imparting to them objective or authoritative knowledge.3 The net consequence was twofold. Firstly, due to an absence of moral structure, children were cast adrift, anchorless, in the raging sea of relativism. Secondly, as more and more teachers embraced this social experiment, they disowned the national narrative; jettisoned their role as mentors; downplayed the importance of deference; and thus had little to give. To cite the poet, author and bastion of British imperialism, Rudyard Kipling:

“No printed word, nor spoken plea can teach young minds what they should be.
Not all the books on all the shelves – but what the teachers are themselves.”

It was here, at an age when they were vulnerable, impressionable, and most in need of moral nourishment, that education failed its pupils and pupils began to lose respect for their educators – and much else besides.

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Another factor in this complex issue is that of single-parent families; a common feature of most inner cities. In the absence of a father figure or other male role models, teenage boys are more easily led into adopting negative role models as substitutes. Lastly, there is the lack of government spending on youth services; also of significance in the overall equation. It is estimated that the average local council spending is a meagre £27 per young person per year.4

We’re All Flowerpot Men

The above factors were mentioned, not to exonerate those that have committed acts of violence or anti-social behaviour, or to make them out to be the victims; but simply to highlight the nuanced forces and influences at work here. And though I said that the absence of positive role models was a key factor among several; upon second glance, it would seem to be the underlying factor. Allow me to explain.

Rappers, pop artists and film stars are usually seen as negative role models: shallow; self-obsessed; materialistic; and egotistical are, in general, common perceptions about this genre of people. As for single-parents, the significance of male mentors has already been stated. Our schools, many are still in the process of recovering their rudders and steering themselves out of the murky waters of moral relativism. Then there is government. Interestingly the Reach report, an independent inquiry into the gunning down of Jessie James, suggested that a “structured national role model programme” be set-up by the government. It is not clear, however, whether such a scheme will work, given that role models operate via the medium of respect. The question being: will teenagers accept being told who to look up to and respect – particularly if government is the one doing the actual telling?5

There is an emerging consensus that we now face a moral crisis brought about, initially by the Enlightenment, and then by 1960’s inspired liberalism; and that it is time to redress the balance. There is also growing recognition that what we need is a more authority-based approach to moral education, though the question of what authority and how much will, no doubt, fuel many a lengthy debate. It is unlikely that most people will accept, or even desire, a return to the ‘do and think as you’re told’ days of the past. Yet an ever increasing number of people believe that only a structured moral framework, which only an authority-based education can offer, will avert our continuing decent into moral chaos.

“There are certain plants and shrubs,” wrote Gai Eaton, “which need to grow on a trellis or support of some kind if they are to grow to perfection; otherwise they sprawl on the ground, without direction, their leaves consumed by snails and slugs, their purpose unfulfilled. Man is a ‘climber’ too, and we do not need to seek far afield for examples of the human incapacity to grow – or even to function in a truly human way – without a support, a framework, a model.”6

Britain’s Moral Jackanory

As with the Judeo-Christian teachings, the Quran (also spelt Koran) too embeds much of its moral teachings in what it calls qasas – “narratives”and “stories”; be they stories of the prophets, of saints and sages, or of the not so ‘extraordinary’ men and women of faith in their quite ‘ordinary’ lives. And each story of earlier prophets We relate to you to make your heart firm thereby, insists one such verse of the Quran.7 Another has it that In their stories there is a lesson for those endowed with understanding.8 And after recounting eighteen of the Biblical prophets and patriarchs – starting with Abraham, and including Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Jonah, John and Jesus – one set of Quranic passages concludes: They are the ones whom God guided, so follow their guidance.9

The moral truths based on the Abrahamic tradition of monotheism, until quite recently, formed the glue that held our society together. For it offered a shared narrative: stories providing meaning, a moral compass, and ethical directives which individuals in society deferred to. But as authority-based morality – i.e. deference to a higher authority beyond oneself to determine what is right and wrong (in this case, Biblical authority) – began to unravel, so too did social cohesion. Traditional notions of virtue, duty, responsibility and moral restraint were deemed antiquated, authoritarian and oppressive and were substituted, instead, by relativism and unbridled hedonism. “I ought” turned into “I want”, and “what is right?” became “what is right for me?” and all traditional taboos and religious constraints came to be seen as an attack on personal autonomy. “The orthodoxies of our time,” writes Jonathan Sacks, Britain’s Chief Rabbi, “are that morality is a private affair, a matter of personal choice, and that the state must be morally neutral.”10

Today, liberalism’s excesses now scar our society: spiraling rates of drug and alcohol abuse, the increase in violent crime and anti-social behaviour, alarming rise in teenage pregnancy, and the continued breakdown of the family (which fuels the aforementioned ills). Our culture of selfish individualism and transient relationships further guarantees that spouses are deserted, children neglected, and the elderly abandoned. In line with liberal dogma, government is expected to legislate laws to tackle these social ills, but not to disseminate a morality that might reduce them in the first place.

The Day the Clangers Died

Liberalism’s self-indulgences aside, religion’s record is certainly not blemish free. Far from it. It was the Reformation, and the wars of religion that ravaged Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, that pretty much gave birth to the modern notion of the ‘liberal virtues’: religious tolerance, respect for differences, freedom of conscience, rights of the individual, equality before the law; and – underpinning them all – separation of church and state. How can we create a society where people of diverse religious ideas can participate equally and live together in peaceful coexistence was the central concern of the time. Short of a bloody war where one side is victorious and the other converted or subjugated, the only viable arrangement was for state and society not to enforce religious convictions.

For the early architects and advocates of liberalism, institutionalizing tolerance did not mean the privatization of morality. They were acutely aware that a free society is only as strong as the moral restraints exercised by its citizens – even if there was no longer any agreement on what constituted the ultimate source for such morals. The nineteenth century British philosopher, J.S Mill, for example, pointed out that whenever moral restraint slackened, “the natural tendency of mankind to anarchy reasserted itself” with “mutual conflicts for selfish ends” becoming the order of the day. The net result, the state is crippled and society steadily disintegrates.

Bertrand Russell, explaining why Greek civilization, and then Renaissance Italy, declined and withered, wrote: “Traditional moral restraints disappeared, because they were seen to be associated with superstition; the liberation from fetters made individuals energetic and creative, producing a rare florescence of genius; but the anarchy and treachery which inevitably resulted from the decay of morals made the Italians collectively impotent, and they fell, like the Greeks, under the dominion of nations less civilized than themselves but not so destitute of social cohesion.”11

Destitute of social cohesion, for a growing majority, sums-up the state of Britain today. It has been said that a free society is a moral accomplishment. It needs strong families, principled institutions, habits of civility, role models, centrality of responsibility, law-abidingness, dialogue and mutual respect for those with whom we differ, and individuals acting as moral agents. George Walden, in a frank take on the state of modern Britain, writes that the point about Britain “was that it never aspired to be vulgarly modern or showily prosperous: that we left to America. And it wasn’t shamelessly hedonistic or snobbishly cultivated either: that was for the French. So what were we about? Well the main thing about Britain was that it was stable, civil and secure.”12 The 60’s assault on morality changed all that.

Time for Tubby Bye Byes

We cannot go back to where we used to be. Yet nor are we condemned to stay where we are. Clearly, liberalism has pushed the envelope too far. Flight from restraint and responsibility has now become the culture of the day. If society is to maintain any cohesion whatsoever, it is not further laws being passed by government that we need, but the will and courage to recover morality. Usher in another moral revolution we must not. But reinstate some common moral norms, gradually and voluntarily, we must.

C.S. Lewis, in an essay entitled The Abolition of Man, spoke of a collage of values that all cultures have independently agreed upon: “the traditional moralities of East and West, the Christian, the Pagan, and the Jew.” These values are thought to bear close enough resemblance so as to objectively chalk out a moral playing field for society, without which no human collective could really live together stably for very long. For Lewis, they included the law of general beneficence: prohibition of murder and oppression, and good will and service to others; the law of special beneficence: the love of kith and kin; duties towards parents, elders and ancestors; duties towards children; and the law of justice, honesty, mercy and magnanimity.13

Interestingly, Shaykh Bin Bayyah, a leading authority in Islamic law and legal theory, says in his discourse on Shared Values that, “No matter how protracted and endless the philosophical debate may be about whether moral values are universal or relative, common sense tells us that shared values do exist.” And furthermore, “These shared values need to be actively promoted.”14

“Manners maketh men.” Manners also maketh society. Currently it is not the economy that is causing our society to come apart at the seems, but rather our behaviour. If we do not recover our moral ecology soon – or in other words, without a shared moral map – the already thinning glue that now tentatively holds our society intact runs the risk of dissolving altogether. “It was,” writes Sacks, “the great insight of liberalism to see that the new and more complex order being brought about by industrial and post-industrial society would require a new cluster of virtues not often associated with more close-knit communities. It was the error of some of its more extreme proponents to see these as the totality – or at least the dominant feature – of the moral life instead of a mere part of it.”15

1. During the course of writing this article, 11 year-old Rhys Jones was shot dead in Liverpool; the latest victim in a growing list of gang related murders.

2. This notion forms the core thesis of Melanie Phillips, All Must Have Prizes (London: Warner Books, 1998).

3. Multiculturalism – the arrangement where minority communities of faith, culture and ethnicity are allowed to flower and to flourish, with equal representation in the legal and social sphere as the dominant culture – was meant to be a jewel in the crown of the progressive project, but has turned out to be something of a nail in its coffin.

Pluralism – the arrangement where minority communities may flourish, but under the umbrella of a core national identity to whose core values they each subscribe – on hindsight, seems like the only credible solution for a country so diverse as Britain, and so rich in history, lore and tradition. The path ahead, then, is to restate national identity, and for minority communities (if they haven’t already done so) to come to terms with its essential narrative.

3. That it is not possible to conjure morality independently of religious tradition is persuasively argued in Alisdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (London: Duckworth, 1985). The book is one of the earliest indictments about the modern moral discourse, and ends with a warning (p.244) about “the coming ages of barbarism and darkness”.

4. Cf. ‘Miliband: Time to Stop Knocking the Young’, The Guardian online; July 27th, 2007, at

5. Shaun Bailey, ‘Inventing Role Models Misses the Point’, The Independent online; August 12th, 2007, at

6. Gai Eaton, Islam and the Dignity of Man (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 1997), p.201.

7. Quran XI:120.

8. Quran XII:111. The verse continues by saying: This Quran is no invented tale, but a confirmation of previous scriptures, a detailed explanation of all things, a guidance and a mercy to the faithful.

9. Quran VI:90.

10. Sacks, The Persistence of Faith (New York: Continuum, 2005), p.40.

11. Russell, History of Western Philosophy (Oxon: Routledge, 2004), p.6.

12. Time to Emigrate (London: Gibson Square, 2007), p.28.

13. C.S. Lewis, ‘The Abolition of Man’, Selected Books (London: Harper Collin, 2002), pp.430-34.

14. Cf. Bin Bayyah, Shared Values, at

15. The Politics of Hope (London: Vintage, 2000), p.214.

4 / View Comments

4 responses to “Role Models, Respect and … Flopping Plants?”

  1. SH says:

    Assalamu Alaikum,

    Mashalla great post!!!

    I grew up in a country where the educated people have more manners and it is said that education is not necessarily just for moving up economically but its supposed to help you become a better person morally and ethically and if it doesn’t do that for you then your education was not worth it… no matter if you are the CEO of some million dollar company. I came to the United States with that same mentality only to find out that it is not true here in the states.

    Of course manners and certain common values should be taught in school alongside math and science etc. Because if you see an educated person have the same manners and talk (using foul language) just like an uneducated one then what’s the point of his/her education.

    Alhamdullilah that we are Muslims that we crave discipline and we cannot argue with the discipline/manners in Islam because it comes straight from the creator and He knows what is best for us. Alhamdullilah!!!!

  2. Solomon2 says:

    This is just too weird, I was reading about William of Wykeham and Winchester College less than six hours ago! Let me reproduce this quote from England in the Late Middle Ages, (A.R. Myers, Penguin books, 1951, p.77-78):

    It was for religious purposes that Wykeham founded Winchester College in 1382, so that prayers should be said in perpetuity for his soul, and boys should be educated…Even Winchester COllege, however, marks a step away from the complete subjections to the Church, for at Winchester, for the first time, a school was established not as a mere adjunct to a church or monastery, but as an independent corporation, self-centered and self-governed.

    Manners maketh man – not religious authority. Might that not be a better interpretation of the motto?

  3. Dawud Israel says:

    masha Allah! Some thoughts, dear shaykh.

    Nice to see another Gai Eaton fan…going off of the imagery of the plant I can say that just as plants compete for light, so do Muslims compete for the Divine Light and in many of our communities you find Muslim role-models in a certain position and never abandoning that position. Yet when they do leave, willingly or unwillingly, you see that people who can serve as better role models may take their place. The plant that hoards the sunshine dies or allows others to partake in the light and the garden grows ever more beautiful. That’s the whole idea behind this:
    and ignoring the future is the downfall of any Muslim movement. The creation of role models is a mixture of selective pressure and opportunity–in short fitnah from Allah or strategic planning on part of Muslims.

    If a person does not stand for something, than they will fall for anything. And since the latter hints towards everything that is relative–the ideal solution would be to go to that which is Absolute. :)

  4. Muhammad says:

    As an Oxford graduate I can tell you that there is no college in Oxford by the name of Winchester College, at least not as part of the university. The only Winchester College I am aware of is the one in Hampshire which was founded in conjunction with New College (Oxford) by William of Wykeham.

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