In order to grow up, it is necessary to be let down

Children are being plunged into misery by the unattainability of fame and fortune and vicarious offence is taken to extremes. This immaturity must stop, says Iain Murray

As if there were not enough sadness in this grim world, we must now face the disquieting fact that there are among us an untold number of depressed children, and that marketing is in part to blame.

We do not know the exact nature of this depression and it may take many shapes. Afflicted youngsters may pine and sulk. Some, no doubt, throw tantrums. Others languish alone in their rooms. A few, perhaps, rail at the elements, little Lears invoking sulphurous and thought-executing fires. And why this misery? Wherefore this pain? I’ll tell you. It is caused by reality breaking in upon a dream. For sooner or later even the infant mind must come to terms with the gulf that lies so often between what we wish for ourselves and what the brutal world ordains. These youngsters want to be like Posh Spice and David Beckham. They yearn, in the one case, to have a snub nose and an empty head, and in the other to affect an androgynous appearance while kicking a ball. Sooner or later, they realise that for various reasons – a surplus of freckles or over-large ears – they are not as their heroes are. Moreover, they are neither rich nor famous. On the contrary, they are broke and totally unknown outside their immediate circle. This makes them depressed.

For this insight we are indebted to Dr Helen Street, who told the British Psychological Society’s annual conference in Bournemouth that young “wannabes” who believe that only money and fame bring happiness are likely to become depressed. Though she did not say so, marketing must accept part of the blame since it uses celebrities to promote products, thus reinforcing the link between fame and desirable possessions. What she did say, somewhat curiously, was that the many television shows that make celebrities out of ordinary people are partly to blame. I say curiously because one would have thought that these programmes – which hold out the promise that you too, however horrible and humble, can be holed up in a house with similar assorted misfits while the nation observes your every eccentricity and listens to your every passing of wind – make the goal of celebrity that much more attainable. Perhaps the depressed children have noticed that the participants in these programmes are adults in terms of physical, if not mental, maturity. This is indeed a muddled business.

Dr Street did not say what, if anything, might be done to alleviate the suffering of these miserable children. In an ideal world, Posh and Becks would be banished, along with all other celebrities, “role models” and the like, and reality TV shows would be made unlawful. But, alas, we live in the real world and must content ourselves with the imperfect solutions of counselling and recourse to the Court of Human Rights. (Cherie Blair’s chambers, Matrix, are expert in these matters and would doubtless confirm that for an infant to be denied fame and money is indeed a breach of his or her human rights.)

The alternative is unthinkable, but let us consider it anyway. It is that we should learn to live with offence, and the earlier in life that we learn to do so, the better. We are all of us offended by different things and should not cavil or repine when it happens. Nor should we presume to take imaginary offence on behalf of others. For instance, the local authorities up and down the land which have chosen not to give hot cross buns to schoolchildren this Easter on the grounds that it might offend people of faiths other than Christianity were rightly rebuked by a spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain, who said: “If we find something offensive we will say so. We do not need to rely on other people to do it for us.”

Political correctness is in itself offensive because it seeks to proscribe certain forms of offence while tacitly permitting others. Thus it is offensive to denigrate women, but not men; it is unacceptable to hurt the feelings of, say, the Welsh, but all right to say what you like about the English; it is deplorable to traduce the working class but okay to insult the middle classes.

We should not shirk from being judgmental, provided we are exercising reason rather than prejudice. The judge who dismissed a juror for wearing a T-shirt with FCUK written on it was being wholly rational. If I were standing trial I would not want my case heard by a jury whose number included a moron. Admittedly, I would also be uneasy if the panel included a man with a beard (he might be a lecturer at one of the newer universities) or a woman with a tattoo (she might herself be a criminal) but, as I say, one must learn to live among offensive things.

And so if children are offended to discover that their deepest wishes are unlikely to be gratified, that fame and riches are dispensed at random by a malign fate (albeit one with a sense of humour) and that happiness is not after all an inalienable human right, that is all part of growing up.

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