On Respect, for New Humanist Magazine, published / by Rich Hobbs

If you look carefully at the background of William Hogarth’s 1734 engraving

"Southwark Fair", you can see a tiny figure lying face down on a board sliding

down a rope tied at a forty- five degree angle from the top of a church tower.

This activity, briefly a crazeat the time, was known as "donkey-flying", and led

to the deaths of dozens of (probably drunk) young hooligans until everyone

tired of it and moved on.

A century later, there were respectable streets in the centre of London where

respectable people would be wise to remove their top-

hats before venturing further, as otherwise their hats would be shied off by

loitering gangs of rough oiks, who’d invariably shout something deeply

disrespectful as they lobbed their missiles of rocks or horseshit. 150 years

earlier Henry Purcell, the English Orpheus after whom a respectable concert

hall was named, where respectable people go to listen respectfully to

respectable music, froze to death outside his front door near Seven Dials in

Covent Garden because he was noisily drunk again, and his wife had locked

him out for the night.

Those are just three examples of the durability of public drunkenness and low-

level yahooery that have been a feature of human society, probably forever.

But of course citing historical precedents ignore the fact that things should be

getting better (despite the fact that it might now be wiser to revise Marxism

and conclude that History always has been and always will be a messy

dialectic with no hope of a synthesis). And thus, of course, all this recent talk

about "Respect", from the Prime Minister downwards (or upwards).

Interestingly, Blair raised the subject immediately after an election result

which articulated very clearly how much the nation respects him, and was

talking in general terms about respect for individuals and communities,

specifically detaching "respect" (good) from "deference" (bad). (He didn’t

mention "respectability", as this is presumably insufficiently rock ‘n’ roll for

his tastes). Two of New Labour’s more shameless lackeys, John Lloyd and

Geoff Hoon, haven’t been so circumspect, and have called on us, and the

Media which naturally defines our every conscious and unconscious thought,

to show considerably more respect for governments and MPs. And, if

necessary, we should be legislated into respectfulness, with everything from

ASBOs to roughly hewn bills about religious hatred.

But what exactly do we mean when we say we want "respect"? As far as

Governments are concerned, it’s easily understandable, and should be just as

easy to dismiss. MPs and ministers quite clearly want deference rather than

"respect", but I’ve always maintained that in the equation between the rulers

and the ruled the benefits are stacked so heavily in favour of the rulers (power,

influence, a smoother route to good tables in restaurants and into TV studios)

that a bit of disrespect on our side helps even things out, however slightly, and

tends to make us feel better as well as keeping our democracy healthily

sceptical and therefore vigilant.

The same applies to special interest groups (ie religions), keen to keep the

equation unequal in a one way street of "respect" and stamp out any, or indeed

all, arguments that would expose the nonsense they choose to believe. But

more widely "respect" is probably simply the wrong word for a more general

desire for safety and a quiet life. Further than that, societies have always, if

lamentably, found greater cohesion when confronted with a threatening

"other", and it just makes things so much easier if that "other" consists of rude,

loud children, particularly drunk ones, as they form a pretty feeble threat to

society as a whole.

Which is where I get to my real problem with "respect" as a political rallying-

cry. "Respect" implies a mutuality which is not what Blair and the rest of them

really mean. They want good behaviour, and you get that not through

"respect", but through fear.

However, as that’s only a limited option I suspect that underneath all this talk

is a yearning not for "respect" at all, but for respectability. Both Left and Right

in this country have always either secretly or openly been trying to make us all

middle class. This means we’ll all be more prosperous and therefore, it’s

presumed, happier, but it also makes us quieter. Different strategies have been

used to reach this goal, either through universal university education, the right

to buy or higher wages or, more brutally, by the Thatcher Governments of the

1980s. By torching the manufacturing industries where the lower echelons of

the non-middle classes worked in order to destroy the power of the trades

unions, the Tories also launched a cultural war on an entire stratum of society,

what we might term the "NCO class". They specifically demonised public

sector workers, teachers, shop stewards, nurses and all the rest of those people

who offered aspirant working class respectability, but who also provided a

cohesion to society the disparate ranks of middle classes won’t or can’t.

What was offered to replace all that was unbridled consumerism,

"opportunity", "choice" and an exclusively middle class vision of property

owning, car driving, consuming respectability. It’s more than ironic that the

cheerleaders for this cultural revolution in The Daily Mail and The Sun,

offering in turns prudery, a endless diet of acid drops and low-rent sybaritism

are the very people who now bang on about "respect" when the one thing the

packs of hoodied drunken chavs making a row in your local shopping centre

want is some respect for themselves, although that’s the one thing that, not

being respectable, they will never get.

Then again, the phrase "I respect what you say" is invariably followed by the

qualifying conjunction "but..."