Respect: the formation of character in an age of inequality
by Richard Sennett, published Allen Lane, The Penguin Press
This is an important book that reflects the temper of our times.
People today are intensely sensitive to a "lack of respect".
They are continually encouraged to crave respect which is usually
taken to mean affirmation. In our age of therapy, the demand for
respect has become a self-conscious act to which we respond: "Hey,
I am respecting you." The rhetoric of standardised respect
has also been adopted by policy-makers, officials and politicians.
The language of contemporary politics - inclusion, diversity, multiculturalism
- upholds respect as one of its principal objectives.
Richard Sennett is concerned with the "fundamental discomfort
which inequality arouses in modern society". Since the beginning
of capitalism, there have been numerous attempts to provide a measure
of comfort to the losers of society. In the past, it was the fear
of class conflict that created a demand for according respect to
those who have failed. Pope Leo XIII's encyclical Rerum Novarum
is paradigmatic in this respect. In exchange for accepting the sanctity
of private property, it offered workers recognition for the dignity
of their work. Today, we still feel the need to reassure the poor
that we respect them. "How the strong can practise respect
towards those destined to remain weak" is one of the key problems
that Sennett explores.
But Respect is not a restatement of a 19th-century problem because,
in our times, the demand for respect is not confined to those who
are economically deprived. Frustration about not being respected
permeates all sections of society. Sennett recalls a party held
after a cello competition to which the hostess had invited the losing
players as a kindly gesture. At the party, the losers rebuffed all
attempts to involve them in conversation. The "competition
had paralysed them".
The fear of such individual failure haunts this beautifully crafted
book. Sennett writes of the "devastating implications of rendering
judgement on someone's future". Not surprisingly, he is uncomfortable
with an education system of tests and exams because they draw attention
to unequal ability. He indicts tests that presume to evaluate potential
talent on the grounds that it represents not only an evaluation
of a specific ability, but an assessment of the whole person. He
is sceptical of the merits of meritocracy, fearing that it inevitably
leads to resentment and envy, as well as representing a threat to
social solidarity. Practices that highlight differences in personal
ability, he believes, lead inevitably to the erosion of civic solidarity
He offers no alternative to meritocracy, although he hints at the
need to create institutions that avoid invidious comparisons. However,
in a complex society, it is impossible not to compare. The institutionalisation
of diversity represents an attempt to avoid comparisons that hurt.
But in the end, the pretence of not comparing does not satisfy the
craving for respect. The author understands this, as do the many
middle-class parents who dislike the impact of exams on their children.
So pervasive is their fear of failure that shielding children from
the experience of disappointment is defined as good parenting. Indeed,
the fear of failure is often interpreted as contributing to feelings
of inadequacy among children. That is why in affluent, polite circles
competition has acquired such negative connotations.
Unlike Pope Leo, whose concern with respect was driven by the threat
of class conflict, Sennett concentrates on its psychological dimension.
He writes of how, in the run-down Chicago neighbourhood where he
spent his childhood, "inequality had translated into a doubt
of the self".This shift in emphasis is crucial for making sense
of the problem of respect today, when even those who are supposedly
strong, or deemed highly talented, can no longer take for granted
the respect of others.
In truth, respect under most forms of authority is relatively feeble.
It is not underwritten by any robust system of cultural support.
The problem is no longer simply how the strong go about respecting
the weak: the strong or the talented find it difficult enough to
express respect for themselves, never mind for the weak. The distinctive
feature of the question of respect today is that it is, above all,
a problem of how the elite feel about themselves. Perhaps, in the
end, it is our very preoccupation with the politics of respect that
we should really be worried about.
published in the New Statesman 10 February 2003