Saturday, 10 May 2008

In Respect of: Respect

Respect fist 2

Respect. What is it, who should have it, is there enough of it and what does it matter?

Respect - in my attempt at a definition - is about recognising the rights of others to not be imposed upon, adversely affected by, be fearful of or suffer from you or your actions. It is a building block of civilised society (there's that word again!) and is more notable by its absence than its presence. Who should have it? Everyone, for if respect is not equally and equitably applied to all, by all, then it has no worth. It is fundamental that respect is to be given to everyone who deserves it.

Most people will have similar views on these points, I guess. The question of whether there is enough respect in today's busy world is hotly debated. Here's my view.

You will often hear the cry that 'there is no respect these days', a criticism most often levied at the younger generation by their elders. There seems plenty of evidence to support this contention. Youth crime is regularly reported in the press; the teaching profession (those old enough to) fondly remember the days when classroom discipline could be administered merely by raising the voice; vandalism, underage drinking, gangs of kids on street corners all feature routinely in the 'Your Letters' pages of the local newspapers. Attacks on police, ambulance men and firemen are more recently, and chillingly, becoming common stories.

The proper politicians are, to their credit, not oblivious to public concerns over behaviour like this. And the root cause of petty crime and anti-social behaviour as being 'lack of respect' is cited often. But why respect is thought to be on the retreat, and what to do about it in terms of party policy, is far from clear.

In order to decide whether respect in our society is in decline, we have to look back to a time when it was thought to be higher. Commonly, the war and immediate post-war years are brought out as a reference point. A time when 'you could leave your doors unlocked', or the local bobby would administer a 'clip behind the ear' to a young vagabond. The trouble with looking back across the years is that memories fade with time, and the tendency to believe in the 'good old days' increases. That these views aren't always born out by the crime statistics doesn't diminish the strength with with they are held. But it is sufficient that there is a perception that crime and bad behaviour are worsening for us to address the matter.

At a personal level it is a daily observation that as a nation we are imperfect in the treatment of our fellows. And it's not always the younger generation that are to blame. When did you last see someone offer their seat to an older person on a crowded bus or train? Have you been the victim, or maybe the instigator, of a 'road rage' incident? Have you ever stomped off to your kid's school to give the teacher a 'piece of your mind' after he or she has administered a telling off to your child?

At an even more base level, how many of your neighbours do you count as friends? Or even know the names of, beyond those next door? If our neighbours were out and had left their washing on the line when a thunderstorm broke, how many of us would dash round with a basket to take it in - and how many would leave it to get soaked? We seem to have lost the ideal of helping others and in turn being helped by them.

If the attitudes of our kids today are to be questioned and perhaps deplored, we should ask ourselves where they got them from, and why. This week, following another needless young death at the hands of a teenage gang, a senior policeman implored parents to take a stronger role in the upbringing of their children, in teaching right and wrong, setting the right examples. And surely he has a good point.

We live today in a consumer society. The 'me, me, me' culture. One where no-one is allowed to starve, where everyone to a greater or lesser degree is given an opportunity to advance. But for some who do not avail themselves of this opportunity and do not advance, there breeds a resentment of those who do. This can reveal itself by a tendency to treat others disdainfully and a refusal to equate reward with working hard. And those that do prosper can become resentful of those who seem to get by fine without effort. And the consumerist, materialist tendency brought to the fore by increasing national wealth, also encourages us to see our co-citizens are competitors in some sort of 'race'. Granny might have had the Hun to fight, but we have Mr Jones next door.

And there is also a geographic element to the problem. In Grandma's day the cities were towns, the towns villages, and the villages remote. All were far less densely populated. The 'family' was wider, more extended, and included 'aunts' and 'uncles' not even related to you. By definition families 'looked out' for one-another, and all took a hand in the standard setting for the youngsters.

Today most of us live within spitting distance of scores, if not hundreds of people. In the cities you might live within walking distance of thousands of people. Yet we have retreated socially to the core family units. Sure, we have friends and acquaintances, but our instinct is for the preservation of only the nearest and dearest. Outsiders are on the whole treated at best as irrelevant and at worst as hostiles. Society, as it has become bigger, has also become more insular.

These attitudes are passed on to our children. And if kids have no authority from their parents, and none is accepted from outside their family group, then the die becomes cast. Without parameters, bounds on behaviour, kids will misbehave and respect for others doesn't even become a blip on the radar.

This didn't start to happen within the last few years. It started to happen decades ago. Those kids are parents, maybe grandparents now. And those values - or lack of them - are now ingrained.

Yet as a society we still yearn for a return of 'respect', to be the recipients of it. But abhorrence of a lack of respect is married to tolerance and apathy. We love to moan about it but do little to change it. That's a prime recipe for perpetuation. We British are so good at that.

So what's the solution?


We should not tolerate the status quo. We should use the age-old method of carrot and stick. I strongly advocate zero tolerance of crimes and misdemeanours, and I think we should empower our police to deal with them without fear of recrimination. Human rights legislation has its place in the law books, but when little Jimmy gets a cuff round the ear from the local Constable, his parents should not be allowed to troop through the courts for compensation from the Force. If a teacher restrains a pupil who attacks another, they should not have to fear suspension or dismissal. If we want a return to the 'good old days' then we have to be prepared to act like it.

But the biggest part can be played by parents. Your children take their lead from you, and you have to teach them not only the theory but the practice of good behaviour and respect for others. Think about that when you play your music loudly, or the next time you ride a rush hour bus.

If you do, maybe your grandchildren will thank you for it.

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