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British Youths Feel They Have Nothing to Live For

The current crop of UK politicians are so busy deciding what not to do about Brexit that they haven’t noticed the despair of the young. The Daily Devil’s Dictionary explains. 

As the social psychodrama of Brexit continues to unfold, promising a springtime tsunami of uncertainty and anguish for an entire population, a YouGov survey commissioned by the Prince’s Trust charity reveals that “18% of young people in UK do not think life is worth living.” That figure has doubled from a decade ago. 

Focusing on the lifestyle of today’s youth, everyone seems to agree that the use of social media is a major factor explaining this trend. The Guardian reports on the reflection of Education Secretary Damian Hinds, who proclaimed “that social media companies have a ‘moral duty’ to act.” He even announced the remedy: “[C]hildren will have lessons in how to deal with the pressures of social media.”

To understand what Hinds means by “moral duty,” we need to contrast the three types of duty that compete to guide social behavior in modern society.

Here are today’s 3D definitions:

Moral duty:

Respect of others. Increasingly in modern practice, the opposite of fiduciary duty, which elevates profit-making to the highest value, following the logic that says money in hand (investment, property) always deserves more money (interest) — effectively displacing the traditional notion of morality that focused on the respect of disinterested norms regulating cooperative social behavior between human beings, rather than between their possessions

Fiduciary duty:

The responsibility of managers for defending other people’s investments and financial interests 

Legal duty:

Compliance with the letter of the law

Contextual note

Cornell Law School explains fiduciary duty in these terms: “When someone has a fiduciary duty to someone else, the person with the duty must act in a way that will benefit someone else, usually financially.” The notion of duty has increasingly shifted toward the defense of assets rather than the respect for people.

There are two essential reasons for this. Litigation — the active use of the law, outside of law enforcement, to settle differences — has become a reflex and not only in the commercial world. But more significantly, the trend to convert all values — even of shared ideas (now protected by copyright), education (purchased through debt) or of life itself — into monetary terms and to devalue creativity, spontaneity and generosity means that the idea of “moral” duty increasingly shades into the notion of financial obligation.

In cruder terms, expecting Facebook to acknowledge and observe its “moral duty” can only be illusory. First, where should we look to find the source of that moral duty? It can’t be the community itself because Facebook has created artificial and self-sustaining communities unaffected by real communities. Second, Facebook has only one way to make money: by manipulating and encouraging its users to manipulate one another, either for profit or pleasure. In today’s moral system, allowing people to do things for profit or pleasure is considered virtuous, the very definition of freedom.

What about the solution Hinds proposes? Can we really devise “lessons in how to deal with the pressures of social media”? Will they consist of behavioral conditioning, psychological counseling or maybe even critical thinking based on analysis of Facebook’s business model?

The real question for an education minister should be this: Does anyone have the slightest idea of how to deal effectively with the pressures of social media? The pressures don’t come from social media itself, but from the way social media allows interested parties — including the individuals who are addicted to it — to apply the real-world methods for influencing, manipulating, intimidating and, more generally, imposing one’s will that have become the model for what is deemed “competitive success.”

If our educational systems were capable of teaching creativity, collaboration and critical thinking, the “lessons” Hinds proposes might make sense. But the stated preference of the current generation of politicians and the overall trend has pointed toward curricula controlled and validated by standardized testing. The key to understanding moral behavior lies in exploring creativity — the potential and social limits of freedom — and encouraging collaboration rather than competition. This implies developing the faculties of critical thinking, which allows learners to put issues in perspective and to tease out their own solutions, individually and collectively. Instead, what we are likely to see is a series of preformulated lessons in how to resist the pressures of social media. 

Historical note

To explain why so many British youngsters feel there is nothing to live for, the analysts have focused their attention on the role of social media. But other environmental factors are at work as well. Although it would be tempting to blame Brexit, which is more a symptom of the same malaise than a cause, the timing of the two studies — the first dating from 2009 — suggests that the financial crisis of 2008 may have played a role. By rewarding the banks and, thanks to a policy of austerity, neglecting the victims (the parents of the youngsters), it radically changed the economic landscape for the younger generations, transforming their outlook on education, work and life planning, not just in Britain but in every Western nation.

The entire globe, like the physical planet itself, is undergoing massive change that has increasingly disrupted patterns of behavior and lifestyles, particularly in the West. Learning that 18% of the youngsters in a wealthy developed nation no longer feel there is something to live for tells us a lot about how precarious our civilization has become. The lessons required to move beyond that despair will have to do with much more than dealing with the pressures of social media.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.] 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.