Wednesday, August 03, 2005

What Is A Culture of Respect?

For the second time, a Blair government has been overshadowed by terrorism within months of its election. In 2001, we were told how much Labour were going to put schools and hospitals first - of course, after 9/11, the only thing that was put first was the War on Terrorism, and foreign policy. Similarly, the Queen's Speech this year promised to create a "culture of respect", yet that seems to have been placed on the backburner after the London bombings.

When a young man has an axe embedded in the back of his skull purely because of the colour of his skin; when another young man is murdered by someone who carries a knife as a matter of course, for the heinous crime of asking someone to stop throwing chips at his girlfriend, something has clearly gone wrong.

Now, I'm not going to argue for a return to some supposed golden age. Many police chiefs think that it is the advent of 24-hour news that has led to a growing feeling of insecurity. Violent rapes that happened in the past, for example, rarely got reported; now they will all get into the press. Reading the Economist earlier this year showed some very interesting statistics, too - as petty crime decreases, complaints about anti-social behaviour rise. In short, there is a certain amount of fear within society that is going to remain whether or not we like it. Even when statistics suggest that we are safer, we can still feel threatened.

What, then, do people actually mean by a "culture of respect"? Certainly there are basic good manners that we should expect from people simply as part of living in society. Holding doors open for people, and saying thank you when they do. Not dropping litter. General politesse, if you like. There is something slightly more sinister, however, when you get people complaining about disrespectful youth. I always get the feeling that the curmudgeons who blame children all the time do it because they see children as beneath them in the natural order of things, not because of anything they've actually done.

There was a letter in the Times about a month ago which commented on children on a radio show saying that "they would respect their teachers when they respect us" - and complained that no-one on the programme had sought to challenge their viewpoint. The subtext to the letter was that teachers should be respected simply by virtue of the position that they hold.

I respectfully disagree.

The logic of the children is obviously self-contradictory. If everyone in society held the viewpoint that they do, there would scarcely be anything left recognisable as society. At the end of the day, someone has to make the first move - even if it means gritting your teeth and behaving politely to people who are really irritating you for whatever reason. Yet there is a distinction between this sort of behaviour, and proper "respect". It isn't an easy term to define exactly - which is precisely why Blair and friends love talking about it. It conveys a certain image, whilst being very difficult to actually argue against. Another sign of the debasement of our political culture.

But I digress. The definition that I would take for respect is number 2 at - The state of being regarded with honor or esteem. This sort of respect, to use an old cliche, is earned, not demanded. What the curmudgeon in the Times wants to see is deference; where the teacher is 'respected' not because of his merits as a teacher, but simply because he is a teacher.

Deference, as opposed to respect, runs right throughout traditionalist view of British society. Even our constitution depends on it - we're supposed to bow to the masters and submit to the Lords, not out of our own choice, but because they are specially appointed with special merit. It's the same in the military - their attitude is one where they expect respect as a result of their position, not because of their personal talents. For all the faults of America, there is one thing I admire greatly. John Adams wanted some flowery official style for the presidency; instead, the republican simplicity of "Mr. President" was adopted. A style that reflects that there is importance to the office, but still leaves it up to the individual to command personal respect through his actions.

As a committed meritocrat, I cannot accept a culture of respect that doesn't aim at respecting people for their actions, but instead demands deference. Children shouldn't be disruptive in class, but not because they should respect their teacher - instead, because there have to be certain rules in society to be obeyed; furthermore, it is only fair to the other children in the class that they behave. Even if they don't want to take opportunities available to them, they should not wantonly close the door for others.

Creating a genuine culture of respect will be a completely different task to the one New Labour envisage, if nevertheless desirable. A culture of respect is far more than just a society with manners. It is a culture where the actions of the individual, not the position or title, determine his standing.