- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 5, 2004

Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction,” Nicollette Sheridan’s towel malfunction and naked leap into the arms of Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens in a promotion before ABC’s “Monday Night Football,” and the recent Detroit Pistons/Indiana Pacers game melee are just the most recent signs of a new American culture. It’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Years ago, the lowest of low men wouldn’t use the kind of language routinely used today not only in the presence of women but often to women. To see men sitting while a woman stood on a public conveyance once was unthinkable. Children addressing adults by their first names was also unthinkable, not to mention use of foul language in the presence of or to adults. How about guys and girls walking down the street while the guy has his hand in the girl’s rear pocket?

What might explain the differences in behavior today versus yesteryear? In part, a significant explanation recognizes society’s first line of defense is not law but customs, traditions and moral values. Customs, traditions and moral values are those important thou-shalt-nots such as: thou shalt not murder, shalt not steal, shalt not lie and cheat. They include respect for parents, teachers and others in authority plus courtesies one might read in Emily Post’s rules of etiquette.

The importance of customs, traditions and moral values as a way of regulating behavior is that people behave themselves even if nobody is watching. There are not enough cops, and laws can never replace these restraints on personal conduct and produce a civilized society. At best, the police and the criminal justice system are the last desperate lines of defense for a civilized society. Too many see police, laws and the criminal and civil justice systems as the first line of defense.

For nearly a half-century, the nation’s liberals, along with the education establishment, pseudo-intellectuals and the courts, have warred on traditions, customs and moral values. Many in this generation have been counseled to believe there are no moral absolutes. Instead, what is moral or immoral is a matter of convenience, personal opinion, or what is or is not criminal.

During the 1960s, the education establishment launched its agenda to undermine what children learned from their parents and the church with fads like “values clarification.”

So-called sex-education classes were simply indoctrination to undermine family/church strictures against premarital sex. Abstinence was ridiculed, considered passe, and replaced with lessons about condoms, birth control pills and abortion. Parental authority was further undermined by legal and extralegal measures to assist teenage abortions without parental knowledge or consent.

Customs, traditions, moral values and rules of etiquette, not laws and government regulations, make for a civilized society. These behavioral norms, mostly transmitted by example, word of mouth, and religious teachings, represent a body of wisdom distilled through ages of experience, trial and error, and discovering what works and what doesn’t.

Customs, traditions and moral values have been discarded without any appreciation of their civilizing role, and now, we’re paying the price. What’s worse is that instead of a return to what worked, many of us fail to make the connection and insist “there ought to be a law.” As such, it points to another failure of the so-called “great generation”: failure to transmit to their children what their parents transmitted to them.

Walter E. Williams is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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