‘Centre of the universe’ syndrome

SOCIAL CHANGE: Carol Oliver says that since her generation rebelled, many of society's systems have collapsed, leading to a succession of “me generations”.
SOCIAL CHANGE: Carol Oliver says that since her generation rebelled, many of society's systems have collapsed, leading to a succession of “me generations”.

In the “olden” days (in this case the 1930s, 40s and 50s) children were subjected to a very long list of should and should nots. Parents believed that children were essentially loveable savages who needed to be trained so that they didn’t get judged and the children learned how to survive.

As children, we believed what we were told and most of us were eager to learn. Table manners were high on the agenda, as was personal cleanliness. We were taught to speak clearly or not at all, write thank you notes for birthday presents and always clean our shoes. “Boys will be boys” gave them some leeway and I wanted to be one of them, because they had a much better time.

Because we were children, our world was created for us and we had no reason to doubt that everyone else in the world lived by the same rules. It was a safe idea that turned out, of course, to be quite wrong.

I recall, as an adult student, studying Russian and Chinese communism and being gobsmacked to learn the differences between the two nations. Not only were they different from us, they were also incredibly different from each other. What did that mean? Finally, I began to understand that where we were and how we were was local, parochial and not very broadminded.

Gloves and hats for school are now gone, as are punishments for eating in the street. Gone is the need to darn socks, attend Sunday school, the Sunday roast, the clinking of money in the collection plate at church and annual visits to the Royal Melbourne Show where you could look at the animals while all rides were out, as were the tents which housed disabled people who displayed themselves to earn money.

In those days, rules were rules. I remember the difficulty my father had when boyfriends started turning up with bottles of beer. He felt insulted, though he didn’t say so. He was extremely polite and highly educated and would get to his feet when a women entered the room. Rules were rules for him as well.

So, the background to all this was our education in the art of pleasing other people. Which in itself contained the germ that led to the 1960s cultural changes – where we learned that without the rules, life didn’t fall apart. As children, we clearly knew what was right and wrong, who was socially upper and lower and what those rankings meant. We understood our advantages and felt sad for the really poor. Despite these differences though, there seemed to have been a common thread of decency, consideration and respect which, thankfully, still exits in a much healthier state in the country.

It didn’t mean there were no criminals, car accidents or misery. Girls were rushed into marriage or “homes” to have babies that were the result of indecent behaviour. It all happened behind closed doors, and when your gloves and hat were back on, you could once more join polite society.

So, what does all that have to do with now? One of the things that shared manners did provide was an automatic structure that, to a point, bound society together. As my generation rebelled, many of these time honoured systems collapsed and the “me generations” began their forward march. We couldn’t be pushed around. We were individuals who, with the introduction of the Pill, could not only choose when to have children but whether to have them at all. It was a new world.

Today, we are at the extreme end of that freedom. No one cares to consider how to park and leave space for other people, mothers and babies feel entitled to dominate cafes with noise and prams, schools don’t have attendance officers and trams don’t have conductors. People have also radically changed their table manners. You can now shovel your food into your mouth with a knife, point with it and hold your cutlery like weapons. Boys don’t stand for women in trams and old people are often ignored. And though this is not yet critical, is it even possible to care about those around you when you have your nose in your iPhone while you, too, are being ignored by others?

Carol Oliver