Thomas Sutcliffe: Respect is not a right: it has to be earned

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The Independent Online

We didn't worry a lot about respect when I was a teenager, but inasmuch as it crossed our mind at all I think we would have assumed that its defining quality was that it always travelled upwards. The outraged response that Catherine Tate's bolshy schoolgirl gives when contradicted by a teacher - "Are you disrespectin' me?" - wouldn't have made sense to us at all. No need to ask the question really.

Sometimes the disrespect was expressed physically - in the form of a flying blackboard duster - and at other times through a sarcastic prediction about our prospects in life, but in either case it was a given. And since this pedagogical scorn fell as evenly as snow - broadly indifferent to the virtue of those it fell upon - I can't recall that we ever hugely worried about the absence of respect from our lives.

These days - judging from interviews with south London teenagers about last week's spate of shootings - things are rather different. Disputes about respect are not only suggested as the possible cause of the murders last week, but the search for respect is also seen as what drives the desire to possess a gun. Musing over last week's events, a leader in a Sunday paper explains that young men resort to gang violence "as the source of respect otherwise unavailable". In other words there's a respect deficit - and it's broadly assumed that matters can be improved by delivering yet more to those suffering a shortfall.

It's a tricky word, of course, with shifting meanings. The website for the Government's Respect drive ("a cross-government strategy to tackle bad behaviour and nurture good" which boasts its own Respect tsar) clearly uses it to mean "good manners" - a reciprocal social contract of common decency. In Peckham and Clapham, though, it seems that respect could more accurately be paraphrased as "intimidatory status". To achieve respect is to make other people fearful of you (even if you only desire this in the first place so that you can walk down the street without being attacked yourself). And in this climate, disrespect becomes not just socially upsetting but potentially fatal.

Swirling around in the mix there are other meanings too, including the old-fashioned sense of respect as the tribute paid by youth to age. This last meaning is problematic, since there must be no implication that respect is unequal in its distribution. "It's not about going back to the past or returning to the days of 'knowing your place,'" the Respect website assures us rather anxiously.

Why not, though? At least why not in the case of children with regard to adults, when the latter know so much more than the former? Because the problem with respect as an inalienable birthright is that it becomes a possession to be aggressively defended rather than a civility to be cheerfully traded. To be fair to the Government's website, it is absolutely explicit about the circularity of the deal - heading its web page with exhortatory mottoes ("The Only Person Who Can Start the Cycle of Respect Is You"), but in this I think it swims against the current cultural tide, which is that respect is the very least we are all due.

And if a boy from Peckham tries to match that rhetoric with the humiliations of his daily life he could be forgiven for concluding that respect has been unjustly stolen from him, rather than that he's neglected to do anything to acquire it in the first place. Children deserve love and protection as a given. Respect should be a matter of mutual negotiation.

LA goes ape over Feng Shui

It's never easy being a world leader in any field - you're always liable to be demoted by some upstart. So it must be good news for Los Angelos that their city has cemented its reputation as the global epicentre of New Age dim-wittedness by hiring a feng shui expert to advise on the construction of a monkey enclosure at Los Angeles Zoo. Simona Mainini was reportedly paid $4,500 for feng shui-ing a new home for three Chinese golden monkeys, left. She has advised that the angle of the monkey house be rotated a few degrees to "transform the energy distribution" and that a water feature be added. The zoo hasn't revealed whether the monkeys will also receive high colonics, botox and reiki massages - but anything less would surely count as cruel neglect.

* An ugly line in yesterday's Sun editorial on gun violence in Britain - suggesting that the situation has been exacerbated by the fact that " gangs of illegal immigrants have grabbed a foothold here, importing the 'life is cheap' culture". Well, that's the problem with multicultural society isn't it? It's all very well them bringing over their spicy foods and their music - after all, we all like a nice curry from time to time. But they inevitably import that "easy come, easy go" indifference to the death of their children, and then force it on the rest of us.

It's utter nonsense of course - the myth of Third World fatalism existing largely because it makes reading about the misery from which illegal immigrants are escaping a bit more bearable for First World readers. In truth illegal immigrants - often prepared to risk everything to secure safety, an education or merely a continued existence for their children - know far better than most of us how much life can cost.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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