Friday, November 18, 2011

Manners, morality & the return of the wowser

The last few years have seen a rise in nostalgia for the Australia of the 1950s, a world seen as a safer and more ordered time despite the fear of communism and nuclear Armageddon. There were good features. Younger Australians find it hard to imagine a world in which one per cent unemployment could be an election wrecker. This was real unemployment, not the statistical construct used today. However, I cannot share that nostalgia.

According to Wikipedia, Australian and New Zealanders use the word wowser to describe one whose sense of morality drives them to deprive others of their sinful pleasures, especially liquor. The The Australian writer C.J. Dennis defined it thus: 'Wowser: an ineffably pious person who mistakes this world for a penitentiary and himself for a warder'.

The word appears to have come into popular use around 1900. The timing is not coincidental.

The second half of the nineteenth century was marked by the rise of the town. In the newly formed towns, the respectable citizens were determined to impose social order and Victorian morality on a population that had had very different moral views. By the end of the century a reaction had set in, with conventional social morality under challenge from those arguing for a more bohemian life style. Wowser was a contemptuous response from those challenging the restrictions and rigidities of conventional bourgeois life.

The relationships between the wowser and bohemian streams were always complicated, with the weighting shifting between the two sides. Attitudes to liquor and and especially sex were central.

As had happened during the First World War, the Second World War saw a dramatic relaxation in moral restrictions under the constant fear of death. At the end of the War, society returned to order, to structure in a last great flowering of Victorian morality. That is why I cannot share the nostalgia for the 1950s. I have no desire to return a world in which sexual angst made it very difficult for young people to access contraception, a world of backyard abortions, of illegitimate children forcibly taken from their mothers. This was also a world entrapped in a double standard, between attitudes as to what was right and what actually went on. Society was confused, but so were the young with sometimes tragic consequences.

Manners and morality are entwined, but serve different purposes. Manners are designed to make society work more effectively, morality says what's right. The two are entwined because the form taken by manners reflects social attitudes: young people stood when elders entered the room; men walked on the street side or opened doors for women; there were rules as to what could be discussed in social conversation. These courtesies reflected underlying social structures.

Today we live in a very odd world today, for beneath the apparent freedoms associated with changing attitudes to sex and gender roles, the wowser is back with a vengeance. Legal enforcement of behavioural rules has exploded, the role of manners and customs has progressively shrunk. 

To my mind, there is very little difference between the social responses that we saw during the rise of the town and those applying today. Then as now, fear of civic disorder and threats to property or persons are drivers. Then as now, the need to protect and to control is central. Then as now, much debate centres on sex, liquor and gambling. Then as now, women are key drivers. 

The big difference between societal responses during the colonial period and today can be summarised in one word, the computer. The computer allows data to be collected, processed, stored and disseminated. It allows things to be tracked and is central to evolving technology such as GPS.

In colonial Australia, the capacity of central governments in the individual colonies to enforce their writ was limited. In turn, this constrained the extent to which the forces for social order and improvement could use government as a vehicle. They had to rely more local action and on social means. They also had to focus rather more on the positive, on actions intended to address problems rather than control behaviour.

If you want to get a real feel for the change, read the reports of the NSW Child Protection Board as compared to those coming from its modern equivalents.

Over ninety per cent of current reports are concerned in one way or another with compliance, risk or reporting, along with a multiplicity of individual programs. The NSW Child Protection Board did have a compliance role, but its reports focus on reporting actions carried out within limited resources.

Like the modern reports, the Board spent much time discussing child welfare problems. In fact, it spent relatively much more time doing this because it did not have to worry about other things.

Time to finish.      


Evan said...

I think you are right that we haven't moved on in some ways from the narrow Victorian public morality. Though the public figures have changed somewhat - sport stars having morals clauses in their contracts and being models for the young!

And there is the Victorian distinction between public and private too.

I do think the public culture has changed about sex (esp. the homosexual varieties). I think it was AIDS, and how the gay activists responded to it, that changed this. The way homosexuality is treated in public now compared to my youth (I'm 52) is night and day.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Evan. I would regard changing attitudes to sex and especially homosexuality as a huge advance. That said, I would also argue that some of our attitudes to sexuality are not in fact an advance at all!