So what on earth is respect?
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- 11th-February-2006 #1
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So what on earth is respect?
So what on earth is respect?
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News Online community affairs
"Give respect, Get respect" says the government's action plan - but what on earth does it mean? Can we really define respect?
It has been talked of for months, and now Prime Minister Tony Blair has launched his respect agenda for his administration's third term.
In his introduction to the plan, Mr Blair says: "What lies at the heart of [anti-social] behaviour is a lack of respect for values that almost everyone in this country shares - consideration for others, a recognition that we all have responsibilities as well as rights, civility and good manners."
The challenge is that this is often very difficult to define. Nobody likes yobbish behaviour, littering and so on.
But what about fast food? Many older people think it is the height of bad manners to walk down the street chomping on a kebab - and even worse to fill the bus with the smells of saturated fats.
At the same time, younger people have grown up in a culture of fast food so for some scoffing on the street may be second nature. But is that disrespectful, rude, a generational divide or simply a crime against your digestive system?
"I'm in the classroom..."
Mobile phones are another example. Tony Blair was reportedly aghast in a session with head teachers when he discovered that pupils had phones in schools. Some heads were not that bothered - particularly those in rural areas where the phones were a useful tool.
This is the dilemma for government, to draw the line in the sand between what it can justifiably champion as decent right-thinking activity and that which it can say is thoroughly beastly and anti-social.
Do unto others
So how does it set about doing this? The cover of the government action plan is not just a neat piece of graphic design, it is also a philosophical statement.
The cycle of respect
The logo of two arrows circling each other very consciously borrows from recycling. What goes around, comes around, do unto others as you would have others do unto you.
Here Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his "social contract" comes in. The 18th century French philosopher argued that people should give up their natural rights to do whatever they jolly well please so that society can function.
That idea (also similarly devised by Plato, Hobbes and other great thinkers) is a key element of the modern state. So when Tony Blair talks about respect, or of "rights and responsibilities", he is talking about our contract with each other - and with government.
But if this balanced contract has indeed gone wrong, what happened?
Philosopher Roger Scruton says that the reason why respect has disappeared is because it is no longer taught.
Insolence goes unpunished in the young, and what starts in the playground is translated into adulthood.
However, Richard Sennett, one of Britain's leading sociologists, argues the contrary: We should ask whether institutions treat individuals with respect, particularly those who are not powerful.
The prime minister isn't being choosy about his definition as both of these arguments in some shape or form make it into his package, along with a third idea: that government has a responsibility to intervene on behalf of society if it believes individuals are failing in their personal duties.
In other words, if a local family from hell break the social contract, the authorities will enforce it.
This is usually tricky territory for politicians. John Major's ill-fated Back to Basics drive in 1993 fell down quicker than the trousers of some of his MPs caught by tabloid photographers.
The reason why politicians face a tough time on this wicket is because of an entirely different word: deference.
If government packs people off on parenting classes, is that just helping them get on in life, or a case of: "We know better than you - so just be thankful".
Mr Blair appears confident that he can avoid being accused of demanding deference, saying: "It is not in my gift or anyone in central government to guarantee good behaviour or to impose a set of common values about acceptable behaviour".
He adds that his respect agenda is "not about returning to the days of 'knowing your place'."
Yet, confusingly, he then says that if people who need help will not take it, "we will make them".
Which brings us back to a question left unanswered by the title of the action plan: If Mr Blair is demanding respect, is he also giving it?
There's an idea among some criminologists and sociologists that if respect isn't a two-way street, you create something they call "asymmetric citizenship".
They warn that unless the young are treated decently, they are likely to react in precisely in the ways society most fears.
This isn't just about manners. Studies have found that benefit cheats often believe they have a de facto right to rip off the state because they believe the state has failed them; they have nothing left to lose so decide to stick two fingers up to society.
The irony is that the very same people have also been found to be socially conservative, expressing shock and outrage when they witness the anti-social behaviour of others.
A case of "do as I say, don't do as I do" - another circular philosophy many associate with politicians.►My blog / Your Blog
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- 11th-February-2006 #2
A very stimulating post and food for thought.
Growing up in the UK a half a century ago, I don't ever remember being directly taught about respect, except in very minor ways. It was simply absorbed from the people around us, family, friends and wider society. We never regarded giving respect as deference, we merely acknowledged what was necessary to get along with others. We absorbed respect with our daily bread. Our teachers for example, did not demand respect, they just expected it. The degree of respect that we gave back to them depended on what they gave to us.
I don't even remember teaching my own son directly about respect, except for one very special occasion. He was around 14 at the time and we were strolling around a local cemetary where many of our ancestors lay. I chided him gently for walking across the graves. He chipped back, 'Why not? They're only dead bodies. they don't know if I'm here or not". My answer was, " I'm not saying this for them, I'm saying it for you'.
Just in case I sound like some nut who is drunk on old British nostalgia, I'll give an illustration from the other side of the world where I now reside. There's buckets of respect here. Respect for family, especially those who are older and wiser than you (or even just older, smarter or richer) and respect for true friends who have proved their worth. For the wider society there's no respect whatsoever and never has been - unless you include fear as a form of respect. That's the jungle of public life, rife with thieves, whores and opportunists. 'Abandon hope, all ye who enter here'. That's why we remain a highly stable, self-sufficient society that may never make any serious impact on the international scene.
Real respect derives from shared values. It stems from a deep understanding that we are personally responsible for our actions. What we do affects not only our families and friends but also our nation. That includes all of us, men, women and children.
Tony Blair is a wolf howling in a wilderness of his own making. He swept into office as a saviour and showed himself to be a god with feet of clay.
The slogans ran 'welcome Feminists', 'welcome Minorities', 'send us your poor and needy', send us 'any old historical grudges' and we'll create the New Jerusalem.
He looks good and very 'plastic sincere' on TV but he's not as bright as he would have us believe. He f**ked up. How does that give him the right to beseech us to join his new crusade of 'RESPECT'.
Better we make our own way. Maybe some of us have more insight than he does. Respect is not a political slogan. It's an attitude that enlightened men understand and self-serving politicians do not.
Respect is earned. It's not a right.
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