In the Brownies

I can’t say that Girl Guide affairs feature heavily in my list of concerns, which is probably why last year’s new Guide (and Brownie) Promise slipped under my radar until my granddaughter brought it to my attention. A little online research shows that the Boy Scouts here, and even in America, retain substantially Baden-Powell’s wording, duty to God and all, with alternative versions for conscientious objectors.

BrownieSaluteIt seems that many of my thoughts about the new wording were raised at the time, and to my mind were answered rather inanely by the Chief Guide. I can see why finding suitable wording in a “multicultural society” is difficult. In the early days, “duty to God” mapped easily to “the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount” and “duty to the Queen” as “obedience to her laws and loyalty to her constitutional institutions” – including if necessary the bearing of arms, given that Scouting for Boys includes advice that every Scout should learn to shoot, in a country where personal arms were banned.

I suppose one could argue that if “duty to God” now can mean beheading infidels, some clarification is needed. But in one way the very diversity of beliefs is a sign of the inward-looking autonomy being encouraged nowadays. Irreligious kids of yore treated the Scout Promise like any other casually-taken form of words. It was only the blooming Scouts, after all. Now it seems the young atheist conscience is extraordinarily tender against practising hypocrisy – either that, or extremely anxious to purge other people’s religion. It could even be argued that, at the age girls make the Brownie Promise, it is primarily the convictions of parents that are being catered for – there are few Republican 7-year olds, and there’s some recent evidence that most small children are hard wired for religion and “grow out of it”. Certainly I’m interested that my seven year old granddaughter, raised in an unbelieving household, is embarrassing her father’s agnosticism by arguing against him for the truth of Jesus. I blame the schools.

What strikes me most, though, reflecting on the self-conscious evolution of the promises amongst the Guiding race, is not that they have arrived at a pro-religion, an anti-religion or a satisfactorily neutral result. It’s that they have shown once again our culture’s capacity for speaking fuzzy-feeling fatuous nonsense as if it were solemn truth to live by. Remember “a creation given freedom to create itself”? “I promise to be true to myself” is about equally incoherent. Yet it only found its way into the Guide Promise because it’s seen generally as a moral truism.

When Jesus gave his commandment (or rather, elevated the commandment in Leviticus 19) to “Love your neighbour as yourself” it provoked the question, “Who is my neighbour?” which he duly answered in a universal, and thoroughly challenging, way. “Be true to yourself” also raises the question “Who is this ‘self’?” but there seems no rational way to provide an answer.

To make a promise, after all, is by definition to engage in a commitment or duty beyond self. Why would one need to make a promise to anyone to be what you are? And since the self is a socially extended and constantly modified entity, what does it actually mean to be true to it? Suppose your parents are racists, and you have imbibed that into yourself before you join the Brownies. They try to persuade you this belief is erroneous – so should you cite the Promise to get them off your back?

Or you make your aged mother a promise to look after her in her old age, but gradually find the burden of her dementia on your job, marriage, family and sanity is increasingly unbearable. Traditionally, good people have wrestled with such difficult problems in terms of conflicting obligations. Putting mother into care might finally be a better way of keeping your promise to her than the disintegration of your family and health, which would deny your mother everything anyway. But how could the maxim “Be true to yourself” give any moral guidance at all in such a situation, apart from encouraging you to damn the lot of them and look after yourself for a change by running off to Spain with your friend’s husband?

In short, it’s pretty easy to think of ways in which the promise means “Be selfish”, and pretty hard to think of any circumstances in which it provides a moral equivalent to “I promise to do my duty to God.” “To be true to…” is, after all, to put the object of ones promise first: mother’s care before my lifestyle, the community before my entertainment. The phrase, then, surely means no more than “I promise to put Number One first”.

That is unlikely to stop Brownies being taught to be good people and caring citizens, unless they take their promises as legalistically as those Anti-monarchist children who object to serving the Queen (we’ll no doubt see the wording changed to accommodate them next). But it does demonstrate that “autonomy” as the basis for morality only works at the level of rhetoric, rather than reason – even if, as I discussed in the last post, the self is a shaky enough concept to begin with.

Perhaps more changes are required to bring the Brownies up to the mark, as Billy Connolly argued cogently years ago:

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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