Belfast Telegraph

Our society is sadly lacking when it comes to character

By Fionola Meredith

Have you noticed that the idea of character has almost entirely disappeared from public debate? Of course, the word itself is still knocking around, but now it refers almost exclusively to fictional roles in films, or to someone who's a bit odd or eccentric: you know, a real character. And, of course, there's the 140-character limit on Twitter, which keeps attention spans low and stupidity levels high, because there's no room to say anything of intrinsic value.

But what about the good old-fashioned notion of character? Character in the sense of moral consistency. Integrity. Reliably honourable behaviour, underpinned by deeply-held values and beliefs. When do we ever talk about that?

The answer is, of course, that we don't. We've kicked it into the bin alongside those other useless bits of historical junk like duty, decency and - trigger warning! This could be traumatising - self-discipline. Ugh, no, we don't need that stuff now. We've evolved. In the 21st century, it's all about personal empowerment, yah? My rights, my feelings, my equality. Unconstrained self-expression - otherwise known as me, me, me.

You know, I feel like the fustiest, dustiest of old Tories saying this. I may as well move to Tunbridge Wells and rename myself General Buffington-Tuffington and start writing letters in green ink to the papers demanding the return of family values. I feel like John Major, circa 1993.

But this is part of my point. Even mentioning stuff like character and self-discipline is a matter for shame these days, making you sound like some crusty right-winger, repressed and repressive, nostalgic for an age of punishment, sacrifice and very tightly-folded umbrellas.

Just for the record, that's not me. I don't even own an umbrella. But I do think something vital has been lost in these supposedly tolerant, enabling, free-wheeling times. Good character is the foundation for all the big stuff - justice, freedom, mutual trust. And I think people secretly miss it.

Look at the concerns over Prince Andrew's association with the multi-millionaire banker and convicted child sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, with whom he seems to have spent a remarkable amount of time jazzing round the world on Epstein's private jet and yacht. The Duke of York has vehemently denied claims by Epstein's former employee Virginia Roberts that she was forced to have sex with him as a teenager, but the big unspoken question that remains here is over the Duke's character. He was photographed strolling with Epstein in Central Park in New York after the banker had served his jail sentence. So he knew, full well, at least at that point, the nature of the company he was keeping.

There are plenty of people queuing up to challenge the Duke's intellectual judgment (not reputed to be his strongest point) in associating with a child abuser, but why is nobody talking about his character? That's something far more fundamental, and far more vital, yet because morality has become a dirty word, the perceived preserve of intolerant hardliners and zealots, we all stay shtum. Even the mainstream Churches don't talk about moral integrity any more, preferring to fuss round ineffectually fretting about social justice and similarly woolly topics.

Or what about the notorious case of the footballer and convicted rapist Ched Evans, and where - if anywhere - he should be permitted to resume his career? Now there's a man carrying a huge moral deficit, if ever there was one. The fact that there's been an outcry over his future employment suggests that deep down, people still care about character, and believe it to be important. But because we no longer have the moral framework to discuss Evans' position, the whole thing has descended into a hysterical, hyper-emotional witch-hunt, led by screaming zealots of the secular variety, who refuse to entertain any possibility of rehabilitation, and only want righteous revenge.

This state of play isn't going to change any time soon. The sociologist James D Hunter nails it, in his book The Death Of Character. He says that we long for moral order but we're not willing to shoulder the unpleasant burden of guilt or shame that often goes with it.

Returning to the ideal of good character would mean giving up a little personal freedom. It would mean - the horror - having to say no to ourselves at least once in a while. And that's a price we're definitely not prepared to pay. Not this millennium, anyway.

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