Politicians are often keen to hark back to the values and standards of some imagined better era. When it was, varies but the gist is always the same. Back then, people had more respect for each other and the state. Marriage was the bedrock of society. There was less crime. And quite often, people adhered to Christian values and it was so much better.
Recently there’s been some enthusing in the UK about good old Victorian values. Now, there was a good culture of invention, innovation, lots of interesting art and literature going on… but there was also a lot of abuse, cruelty, lack of social mobility, child labour etc etc. It was a criminal offence back then to be gay. There is no former golden age in which it was all great. What there was, through a lot of the past, was a reduced willingness to talk about things that were wrong. Dickens was radical as a writer for even mentioning the existence of the poor. These days, we have a far greater awareness of wrongs, thanks to the news and media.
We live in a radically different world to that our ancestors inhabited. The ways in which we communicate and the speed at which information travels has changed a lot. Children do not go barefoot from poverty in the UK any more. People in the UK do not starve to death as any kind of normal either. The world changes, it keeps changing. There are some people who look at increasing tolerance and see, not something to celebrate, but horror and the decay of standards. There are folks for whom freedom of sexual expression and identity is an abhorrent lapse of decency. There are plenty of places in the world where the old values rooted in fear and prejudice still hold true.
It is important to look to the past. We can learn from it. It’s not the case that the move from then to now marks steady, unequivocal progress. As societies, we get some things right for some people, horrify others. What seems like progress to one appears as setback to another. I don’t see the rise of consumerism and increased material wealth as unequivocally good. I’m very much in favour of a basic level of wealth that allows wellbeing, but we have so much affluence that we make ourselves sick with it, destroy our environments and squander the earth’s resources. Progress? I don’t think so.
We can’t create a future just by harking back to what was. We have to deal with the realities of now, and those keep changing. We learn all the time, we explore new possibilities – or we should. If there’s a golden age of values, respect, care and responsibility out there, it doesn’t lie in our history, it lies in our futures. The only way we get there is by working towards it, creating is as we go. Right now, that looks to me like a very long and challenging journey to make, but not an impossible one.