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A society shaped by moral decay; how the punk movement has done this.

From the Sex Pistols to Pat Barker and why you can wear a mini skirt


The notion of moral decay elicits the idea that increased consumption, desire and pleasure, greed and selfishness are negative and harmful parts of the human psyche. As humans living in a world where so many are destitute, the presence of such a poor and powerless underclass, has turned opinion toward exonerating human behaviours by declaring that selfishness, greed and hierarchy are needed for not only the existence of capitalism and self-improvement but that these characteristics are a genetic biological fact that is programmed into us.


‘Moral decay’ throughout the twentieth century was increasingly used by politicians, policymakers and social scientists, as an indication that society was slowly progressing downward in its respectability and its moral agency. What may spring to mind when we think of such moral collapse is the preaching of evangelical right-wing sermons on the ‘moral decay’ that society had supposedly experienced by the ‘80s, which formed the basis of the religious extremism in Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. Yet, moral decay throughout the twentieth century was always referring either to the working-class or youth culture, ‘moral decay’ of the middle- and upper-classes did, of course, not exist.


The phrase itself provokes negative connotations, especially to the older generation where such codes of conduct and respectability have remarkably stayed rather intact. But does moral decay always have to symbolise something malevolent and poisonous?



















An example of what would be deemed ‘moral decay’ by American televangelist Pat Robertson, famous for spreading white supremacist views, hatred and racism is the punk movement of the 1970s. Punk was defined in its anarchistic anti-establishment rhetoric to be against the social codes of moral conduct which were stratified by gender, class, race and belief. Although of course the punk movement was centred around the music of early bands such as the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Damned, the Stranglers… (I could go on), what was even more inciteful was the attitude of attacking the status quo. The music scene which developed around Rastafarian reggae influence at a time of increased immigration from the West Indies, the fashion from shops like S-E-X with designer Vivienne Westwood and the increased exposure of the body in punk fashion. As well as the language of vulgarity which popularised phrases of anger toward the establishment and anger toward imposing such rules and regulations onto primarily the working-class, most of which were not represented.


Other movements too before and subsequent to the punk scene had an attitude and an ethos much like this; youth culture beginning in the ‘50s with the Teddy Boys, Mods, Rockers, Hippies and then later in the twentieth century with the influence of R and B, to name but a few. Interestingly, the older generation today would have been alive to experience some of these and may have indeed been involved in them. Is the idea of ‘moral decay’ then limited to faith (e.g. Christianity) or can it be mapped by age? As the Breakfast Club of the ‘80s told us “when you grow up your heart dies?”


Moral decay when we take it at face level signifies that people have become less proper, less respectable and are debasing themselves, it seems more like a positive thing. Because of movements such as punk which popularise androgyny in sub-cultures such as Skinhead fashion which had an almost unisex style has paved the way for more acceptance of an LGBTQ+ community, and an openness about sexuality and gender, which is defined by the individual, not genetics. Such movements and the influence of accepting musical influence from the West Indies for example and the intermingling of people of different ethnicity at a time when immigration was feared to cause mass moral debasement, has paved the way for the multicultural and multiracial society we live in today. Fashion, which became increasingly revealing with icons such as Twiggy popularising the mini skirt has meant that people feel increasingly able to express themselves freely through fashion and exposing their bodies, should they wish. The 1950s dancehall even, and popularising of energetic dances such as the Jive, and other dances which had influence from the Americas and Africa were not only a place of racial diversity, but also a space wherein expression through movement and excitability, sweat and engaging with the opposite sex began to become normalised.















The freedom of individuality, expression, style and taste are all products of the inroads made in generations before us, who were going against the moral standards of their parents. Notions of moral decay should not be feared but celebrated. Such a relaxation of what is deemed ‘proper’ and ‘right’ has led generations going into the twenty-first century to embrace their own opinions, embrace differences and enjoy a diverse culture. Of course, we are not at the end of the journey; attitudes towards gender, existing forms of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and discrimination of any kind still prevail. Yet, what may be deemed as ‘moral decay’ is centred around destroying opinions such as that of Pat Robertson, taking a leaf out of movements such as punk and fighting against hatred.


Human nature need not be thought of in such extreme and polarised views to indicate that human beings are selfish consumer-driven pleasure seekers, nor should such behaviours be naively seen as a product of a capitalist country. Instead, we should think, notions of ‘moral decay’ are instruments to marginalise, segregate and subjugate minorities and people whom do not fit an archetypal prototype. It is a notion to scaremonger and spread fear.


We should not let it. In its place, embrace the progress made, carry on, and be thankful that you can wear what you want, you can say what you want, you can progress all you want, express all you want and be who you want. Those who look down on that, should be treated with a subtle smile, a raised chin while you powerfully and resolutely walk by. 


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* words by Deia Russell-Smith, art by chloe dootson-graube