Scouting has become a follower of societal trends, rather than a setter of them.
The Irish Times this morning carries a report from the United States that the Boy Scouts of America has signaled that it will now welcome gay adults as members into its organization of 3 million plus members across the country.
It is a welcome development, coming as it does on top of an earlier acceptance that young people under the age of 18 who are gay, can join.
LED BY SOCIETY
The President of the Boy Scouts of America, the former US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, credited with ending the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy in the US military (a policy designed to circumvent rules banning gay people from the military, without actually confronting the issue), has been credited with a role in driving the BSA Executive Committee’s decision.
In truth, it was the decision by the US Supreme Court last week, to open the way for same sex marriage in the United States, which finally pressured the socially conservative BSA to act.
DON’T ASK, DON’T TELL
Scouting Ireland and its predecessor associations of course managed this transition to equality in theory (if not quite in practice just yet) in typically Irish fashion. Since the early 1990’s, it was obvious that many scouters in Ireland were gay. There was no rule against this, but there was also an implicit understanding that it was not something to be openly discussed – in essence a similar arrangement to the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy employed in the US military
The Scouting Ireland Constitution now clearly states that our association is open to all, but the reality is, there remains a homophobic undertone in the association that will take time to dissipate.
Conservatives at National level in Scouting Ireland did their best to resist supporting the associations involvement in the Dublin ‘Pride’ event this year (as they have done in previous years), until the fresh face of an enlightened and thankfully determined National Secretary managed to brow beat the NMC into taking an actual decision on the matter (the decision was to support the involvement, even if one or two in the room may have done so through gritted teeth).
We should not therefore be too hard on our BSA colleagues. Scouting Ireland is an inherently liberal-minded association at grass roots level. Recent elections have begun the process of reflecting this at national level too, after several years of very conservative leadership. However, Scouting globally is in essence a socially conservative movement.
NOT THAT LIBERAL AFTER ALL
Even those of us who profess liberal values in our Scouting lives, are only liberal on a spectrum of social conservatism. We look liberal compared to the tiny, but influential Neanderthal minority in our association who secretly despise females being involved, think homosexuality is an abomination and yearn for the old days of one religious denomination and its leadership dictating association policy.
In reality however, ‘liberal’ scouts are, in the context of the wider social spectrum nationally, still fairly conservative. We espouse conservative values such as respect for institutions, self-reliance and a commitment to the community at large. Our promise talks of a ‘Duty to God’ and we not only wear a uniform – usually the preserve of the defence and police forces in a secular democracy – the uniform we wear has its origins in the early part of the 20th century.
We cling to symbols and insignia, betraying our militaristic origins. A core part of our programme is centred on living and sleeping in temporary structures utlising a hierarchy style of leadership in order to maintain order.
Perhaps the most interesting observation however is that Scouting, once a trail-blazer in society, has become so immersed in its own past, it is now reduced to being a follower, and often a reluctant follower at that, of wider societal trends.
Scouting carved a unique position for itself in the early 20th century by embracing a concept where young people called the shots. Scouts were practicing environmentalism long before the tree-hugger lobby came into existence. Scouts were at the vanguard of conserving nature and were expert recyclers long before green bins appeared in everyone’s back yard.
Even democracy got a leg up from Scouting, with many associations around the world practicing it, when their governments chose not to. In Ireland, the last vestiges of our own social innovations saw female youth members welcomed into our ranks, ahead of many of our fellow European associations.
Perhaps the greatest move we made was our final great triumph – the merger of two associations from ostensibly two differing traditions on an island divided for so long by culture – a shining example to society on the island and the precursor of many other positive moves in that direction by others.
Sadly, since then Scouting in Ireland has confined its innovation to internal matters such as youth programme – very important, indeed centrally important, but an internal matter nonetheless. We no longer look outwards to shape society, preferring instead to let society shape us. Even then, we resist this change until it is thrust upon us by regulation (for example on matters of transparency) or by a few brave souls within our family who have a passion for equality (our presence at ‘Pride’).
WOULD BADEN POWELL BE IMPRESSED WITH SCOUTING TODAY?
The coming Chief Scout elections will be interesting because the electorate will send a clear signal to the wider membership in terms of the candidate they choose. Some important and progressive changes were made at the elections in April. Chief Scout candidates (and there are many) need to set out (and need to be quizzed about) their vision for our association.
Are we content to be mere followers in society or is it time for a more ambitious agenda, that takes us back to the original Scouting Ireland vision, but also to the spirit of our founder, Baden Powell?