It has now become a convention in Uganda today to decry the degeneration of morals, especially among the young generation. This outcry comes from the moral guardians of society, especially politicians and religious or faith leaders. One can add groups of other people, not excluding taxi vendors who apply morality selectively.
The politicians might have come more to the fore in the moral campaign because of the Ministry of Ethics and Integrity, which did not exist in previous governments, and so morality has been given a high profile.
While one may not wish to single out names, it is impossible not to note the posture of former Minister of Ethics and Integrity, Dr James Nsaba Buturo in the morality campaign on account of his many articles in the press on the subject.
However, there are other politicians who have put their signatures to the resolve to turn societal morals around in the new era of politicians-cum-preachers and vice versa.
The alleged degeneration of morality among the youth is regarded as so self-evident as to require no further argument or definition. This article sets out to question preciously that conclusion, not as a cynical or dismissive stance, but in order to try to understand what the supposed moral degeneration might be and how it might be addressed.
Comments on the moral condition among the youth take several forms depending on the passion of one who exhorts. They range from accusation to harangue to caution or even threat.
Before we decry moral degeneracy or decadence among the youth, we need to ask some questions. For example: Is the assumed moral downturn the condition of the majority of the youth in the country or is it only a small proportion of the young generation?
Are we confusing what might be a generation-gap and generational conflict in moral outlook or social attitudes with moral degeneracy? Are the youth perpetrators or victims of this alleged state of affairs or both?
Sociologists tell us that as the social and economic conditions of a people change, so does their moral outlook and that such change is particularly visible among the youth.
That does not mean that moral conservatives are not found in societies undergoing rapid social change. A sociological perspective on morality serves to ground morality in a people’s material existence. It does not say that morality is determined by the socio-economic situation, but that it is conditioned by it. This leaves space for agency (ability for people to change their situation) in the moral enterprise.
A specific area in which is going to be the subject of moral change among the youth is their perception or conception of the human body. This happens in all developing societies, and not only in Uganda.
Young people’s expression of their identity and freedom through the body – what they eat, how they dress, hair styles, sexual mores, musical taste– is going to differ or even conflict with the standard moral perception of their elders.
Increasingly, the youth will rebel against conformism as they explore new forms of self-expression.
Also, societies undergoing rapid social change, impacted by factors such as urbanisation, consumerism, and exposure to the outside world, youth will push for more choice and toleration of difference rather than conform to a set pattern of behavioural expression.
But in decrying moral degeneracy among the youth, are the moral elders trying to run away from their shadow? There is a saying that morality is caught rather than taught. We are moral beings, but we learn morality, not merely through reason or conscience, but mostly by example. What role models do Ugandan youth have today?
How do the experience of war and civil conflict, rampant corruption and poor service delivery affect the moral outlook of the youth? What moral values are they to learn from the way public figures live their lives?
And to what extent is moral degeneration where it exists, as for instance, in the increase in witchcraft related killings a function of a pre-scientific mindset coupled with hankering after elusive material prosperity and the ever present threat of imminent death which characterise much “third world” life experience?