E Jane Dickson: Our modern obsession with respect

What Tony Blair is really talking about when he chirrups about a culture of respect is law and order
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The Independent Online

"R-E-S-P-E-C-T" yowled Aretha Franklin in her 1967 barn-stormer, "Find out what it means to me". It's a poser for politicians as much as for pop stars. Tomorrow Tony Blair, with scarcely less pizzazz than the energetic Ms Franklin, will chair the first meeting of the cabinet committee on respect. The luckless apparatchik with responsibility for finding out exactly what it means to Tony is David Miliband, who since his 6 May appointment as minister for Communities and Local Government (as if these were two distinct areas of concern) has been popularly dubbed "minister for respect".

"R-E-S-P-E-C-T" yowled Aretha Franklin in her 1967 barn-stormer, "Find out what it means to me". It's a poser for politicians as much as for pop stars. Tomorrow Tony Blair, with scarcely less pizzazz than the energetic Ms Franklin, will chair the first meeting of the cabinet committee on respect. The luckless apparatchik with responsibility for finding out exactly what it means to Tony is David Miliband, who since his 6 May appointment as minister for Communities and Local Government (as if these were two distinct areas of concern) has been popularly dubbed "minister for respect".

"We have got to build a social contract that is clear about how you build respect," Mr Miliband told The Independent earlier this week. That's a lot of building on a buzzword - never the surest foundation for social policy - but ever since Blair pledged a new "culture of respect" as the big agenda for his third term, it's the word on everyone's lips. "Respect", it is agreed by everyone from Ali G to Pope Benedict XVI, is a universal right and to "disrespect" someone or something the worst of all evils.

Traditionally, respect entailed a certain sympathy or admiration for its object. It's meaning. however, has morphed subtly in recent years into a kind of "tolerance lite", a tolerance without moral consequence. At least Ali G is sending himself up with his scattergun protestations of "respeck". There is, sadly, no such humour evident in the new Pope's pronouncement on homosexuality. "We must have a great respect for those people who suffer and who attempt to find their own way of correct living," he said, before making it absolutely clear that his respect did not stretch to according "sufferers" of homosexuality the legal or social rights of a marriage contract.

Increasingly, saying "I respect your views" has become a faintly more acceptable way of sticking your fingers in your ears and la-la-ing until your opponent has stopped speaking. I've never admired the political philosophy of Charles de Gaulle, but at least he called a spade a pelle: "I respect only those who resist me," he said, "but I cannot tolerate them."

There's nothing much wrong, of course, with respect as a polite celebration of difference. Respect for other cultures is a necessary keystone of the modern school curriculum. And, I dare say, it was respect for the Muslim faith that prompted Prince Charles in his muddle-headed, Marie-Antoinettish way, to stipulate that one of the first buildings in his new toytown development outside Newquay should be a mosque. But in a town where the Islamic faith claims some 0.15 per cent of the population, this appears a somewhat cosmetic enterprise.

Meanwhile, in the real world, "respect" has become the blue touchpaper in an increasingly combustible atmosphere where, under the proposed Racial Hatred Bill, it will be illegal to make a joke about the adherent of any religion. Personally, I'm warming to John Gay's idea that "we must respect the other fellow's religion, but only in the event and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart". And I'm damned if I know or care whose sensibilities are disrespected by granting political asylum to the victims of Robert Mugabe's vicious regime, but it seems to me this is taking intercultural respect a deal too far.

Of course what Tony Blair is really talking about when he chirrups about a culture of respect is law and order. (The German word for respect, achtung, is instantly recognisable as the dread word heading social order notices in any wartime movie). As a nominally socialist prime minister, it ill becomes Blair to mention "respect for authority" and Mr Miliband, to be fair, has made a good fist of spinning this: "We have to develop respect on the basis of extended opportunities and a sense of ownership rather than a reliance on deference which would have been the way the social contract was built 50 years ago," he said.

Respect, continued the former minister of state for school standards, is first engendered in the classroom, an arena where, some say, pupils' sense of ownership has got out of hand. None of us wants a situation where a child knifes a teacher for "dissing" him, but as any teacher, or indeed any parent knows, demands for respect are the resort of those who have irretrievably lost control. The old adage about respect having to be earned holds inconveniently true. And Mr Miliband is right when he says that old-school social deference - respect for Queen, country and the constable on his bike - is a lost cause. The cause was lost for good reason. To be etymological about it, respect (from the Latin re-spicere) is an act of close attention; it means to look back or look again. The traditional powers that be (or more properly, that were) - monarchy, parliament, the police - scarcely bear close scrutiny.

And yet, there is, in our modern obsession with respect, a kind of atavistic longing for control. Disappointed by the old authorities, we set up new, increasingly spurious authority figures to order every aspect of our existence. Indeed, it's quite the fashion for authorities to seek guidance these days. Prince Charles' crackpot theories (and for that matter Margaret Thatcher's) are apparently based on their respect for the discredited fantasist Laurens van der Post. The rest of us, lacking a personal guru, must make do with television programmes in which self-styled mentors tell us how to behave. We gape reverently, while the "Food Doctor" pokes through our faeces and tells us to eat more greens. We bawl at our children to shut up while we listen to "Supernanny" lecturing us on discipline and the importance of, you've guessed it, respect between parent and child. And just when you think it couldn't get any worse, Ann Widdecombecomes bundling on like Mrs Doubtfire in an Alice Band to sort out dysfunctional families in a new primetime series, Ann Widdecombe to the Rescue. What next? Rebecca Loos on marriage guidance? Yet the response to Miss Widdecombe's reincarnation as moral mentor to the nation is depressingly familiar: "You may not like her, but you have to respect her."

Immanuel Kant was on to something when he wrote about the necessity of respect for others as more than a means to one's personal desires. If it's all the same to Widdy (and I'm sure it is), I'd rather look back and look again at my own experience as a way of sorting out my life. But self-respect -that most old-fashioned and morally taxing of virtues - has been all but occluded by the mania for respecting and demanding respect from others. Tony Blair may have caught the mood of a disaffected country, but Aretha did it better ("just a little bit"). To paraphrase Ali G: "'nuff respeck, already". It's time to sing a new song.

e-jane.dickson@virgin.net

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