Julie Myerson Story - Are 'Liberal' Values Failing Us?
Last week, a British mother spoke publicly and passionately about the pain caused by her son's cannabis addiction.
Julie Myerson was I suppose indirectly promoting her new book, The Lost Child, which deals with her family's struggle. Yet she was also giving voice to feelings and situations faced by many other parents today.
The story has sparked all manner of debates in the media: about the dangers of cannabis use -- and particularly skunk, a greatly strengthened form of the drug -- and the use of "tough love" in trying to help troubled teens.
Any parent who has raised a troubled child knows something of the pain these parents have been through. Those of us who, thankfully, have seen our children grow up without this kind of trauma can nevertheless empathise with the difficulties involved in balancing parental discipline with trust.
Parenting has to be one of life's most difficult, if potentially rewarding roles. There is no practice run, and there are no guidebooks for guaranteed success. You can't buy your kids as prefab units in IKEA, and "follow the instructions" to build healthy young people.
What's more, even when you've done a great job, your child may still face problems which threaten their future. It is a truism, but true: sometimes, great parents raise troubled kids. (Of course the reverse is true, too.)
I think, though, there is another vital point to emerge from this story. We can see here evidence of the dangers excessive liberalism poses for families and children. (I'm not using the term in any political sense, but a moral and social one.)
Liberalism is now the dominant shaper of values in modern Britain. We need look no further than our newspapers over the past two or three weeks to see that.
First, we heard about baby Maisie, born to two very young and naive teenagers whose parents, it seems, were prepared to overlook or even encourage their children's sexual behaviour.
Then, we read of a government brochure which advises parents not to instruct their children in morality when teaching them about sex - on the basis that doing so might warp their perspective.
This is liberalism at its worst: in suggesting moral codes you may get it wrong, so it's better to err on the side of neglect.
Finally, we learn that there are now fewer married people than single adults or unmarried couples in British society -- for the first time in history. The concept of family, it seems, is undergoing a major redefinition, in line with more liberal moral codes.
Liberalism has been the philosophy of choice, especially among the literati and shapers of culture, for the past four decades.
It took hold with my own generation, the demographically huge and culturally influential baby boomers. Among us were more than a few hyper-individualists who preached that freedom means "anything goes" and promoted sexual and chemical experimentation.
Following in our wake, youthful Gen-Xers found themselves cast adrift on a sea of uncertainty. Their catch cry was "whatever"; hardly a cry revolution, more a sign of resignation. "I'm under too much pressure," they said, "Don't ask me was right and wrong, there are too many choices. Just do whatever."
So, it's little wonder that many of the current Millennial youth generation are struggling to find any code of morality aside from what seems expedient at the time - or what feels good.
Interestingly, though, while a naively optimistic liberalism reigns supreme in Britain there are already, on mainland Europe, shifts in community attitudes away from overtly liberal values.
In Holland, for example, a growing crime rate and spiralling "sex and drugs" culture have forced authorities to clamp down in areas where public tolerance of drug use and prostitution has been high for many years.
In December of last year, authorities in Amsterdam announced that they would close half of the city's brothels and cannabis cafes because they are attracting organised crime, including human trafficking.
Dick Houtman, a sociologist at Rotterdam's Erasmus University said: "There is a feeling that our tolerance is the principal cause of many of the problems we experience now."
He added: "The debate is about where liberty and tolerance should end and where order should begin."
The Dutch situation reveals the danger an excessively liberal society poses for communities and cities.
The Myerson story suggests that excessive liberalism in society can leave a tragic legacy closer to home - for families and children.
Liberalism preaches that I can do as I please so long as it doesn't "hurt anybody" or break any laws.
In saying this, liberalism faces two major problems. The first is that its definition of "hurting" is wide open to negotiation. There is, after all, more than one way to hurt a human being.
The pain caused by living out liberal ideals, especially in areas like drug experimentation, doesn't necessarily have to be physical. Deep psychological and emotional scars can be much harder to heal.
Studies are consistently showing that sustained cannabis use often leads to psychosis. This is especially true with the stronger varieties of the drug and the skunk which some kids are now using is far stronger than the marijuana university students experimented with 30 or so years ago. It contains 25 times the amount of tetrahydrocannabidinol (THC), the main psychoactive ingredient.
Recent reports suggest that record numbers of British teenagers now require treatment as a result of smoking skunk. Last year, more than 22,000 people were treated for cannabis addiction, most of them under the age of 18.
Whether or not the cannabis of today is more potent than that of 20 years ago is not the point. All forms of addiction are harmful. That our teenagers need any drug in substantial quantities, just to help them cope with life, is not a healthy sign. The scars of an "anything goes" are not always on the surface.
The second problem for liberalism is that it fails to recognize the nature of generational change. What we refuse to address in people's problem behaviour, we indirectly condone - and what one generation tolerates, the next will often treat as normal.
In an age where non-medicinal cannabis is outlawed, we still have adults, including many in responsible positions of leadership, admitting that they experimented with cannabis in their youth.
In many ways, this kind of openness is healthy, provided it comes with a sense of regret. Sadly though, these admissions are often made with a nod and a wink, as if having done such things is a measure of a person's "cool" quotient.
What message are we sending to the next generation? If we've preached liberalism all our lives, and still celebrate it, why should we be shocked if some of our kids want to take it a step further than we did?
Most of us who are parents recognize that our kids learn more by watching us than listening to us. They pick up, as if by osmosis, our attitudes to various types of behaviour, including the use of drugs. They are, as we were, extremely sensitive when it comes to parents preaching one thing while doing another.
Of course none of us were perfect in our youth and, uncomfortable as it may be, we must face the risk that comes with giving discipline. All parental love is "tough love" to a degree.
It's tough for us because we may lay down laws we didn't always abide by ourselves, and because we know we may lose our childrens' affection for a while.
It's tough for our kids because it involves the setting of parameters, the laying down of restrictions, based on what is safe and healthy for the individual and for the family. And what is safe and healthy is linked with what we consider to be right, which is more than a product of context.
For a while now, we've wanted the benefits of conservative social values, while holding onto the so-called freedoms offered by liberalism. Sadly, though, these freedoms come at an awful price - a price that neither we, nor our children, nor our communities should have to pay.
Copyright Mal Fletcher 2009.