Respect for what?
Tony Blair's 'culture of respect' is as antisocial as it is illiberal.
Tony Blair’s Third Term project is to foster a ‘culture of respect’ across the UK. Fuck off!
Just testing. As yet, it is not illegal to swear in Britain – through it might be enough to get you barred from its new breed of non-smoking, non-binge-drinking pubs. Nor will it be against the law for teenagers to wear hooded tops (though this is enough to get them banned from shopping centres) or for families to eat their dinner in front of the TV (though you’d better stop the kids from talking about it in Circle Time at school).
In all the 44 bills that form the UK government’s legislative programme (1), there is not a law that makes ‘respect’ legally compulsory. At the same time, however, we can be sure that opting out of this government-sponsored culture is not an option. At the heart of the Queen’s Speech is a programme of lifestyle conformity, in which the government assumes the power to censure the most intimate and everyday aspects of individuals’ lives. So far, this has resulted in an eclectic mix of government don’t-likes, which appears frankly bizarre.
So Home Office minister Hazel Blears has launched a crusade against teenage yobs, complete with a wardrobe of suggestions for what they should wear (US-style uniforms when carrying out community service so justice can be seen to be done) and what they shouldn’t (hooded tops, and other apparently disrespectful clothing), and how families should conduct their mealtimes (at the table, not in front of the TV). She has even gone so far as to advise on home furnishings. She was dismayed by one house she visited on the campaign trail.
‘At the bedroom window there was a duvet covering it – there were no curtains’, she said. ‘Downstairs, as far as I could see through the window, there was no furniture. But there was a 42-inch plasma television. Now I’m not passing judgment on that particular family but if you are going to bring up children in that environment….’ (2)
The assumption that the government can, and should, micromanage people’s lives in this way is another illustration of the illiberal streak at the heart of New Labour. As such, it has received its share of criticism. ‘It is not for the state to make sumptuary laws about what apparel is acceptable and what is not’, wrote Mary Kenny in the Guardian (3). Warning that ‘there is the risk of slipping into a “nanny state” by default’, The Times (London) argued that while many of these measures ‘seem not unreasonable at first sight’, they ‘collectively create the impression that ministers wish not only to suggest a wise course of behaviour to citizens, which they are entitled to do, but to insist upon it if their doubtless sage advice is not heeded’.
‘This is an instinct that should be resisted’, says The Times. ‘There are few more important “rights” in a democracy than the freedom to make mistakes.’ (4)
As we have argued on spiked, without the right to make the wrong choices we have no meaningful choices at all. Tony Blair’s ‘culture of respect’ is a further attempt to promote the new conformism, where everything from what we eat and drink to what we say and think is subject to official scrutiny and regulation. It should not be the role of government to dictate these intimate aspects of everyday life; and the fact that the government is so keen to play that role should give us pause.
However, the authoritarian dynamic is not the central problem with the ‘culture of respect’. After eight years of New Labour, we are familiar both with its fondness for creating new laws about everything and anything, and its inability to enact those laws. A self-conscious attempt to promote any kind of moral code, such as ‘respect’, is fraught with dangers for politicians; commentators have already reminded us of former Tory prime minister John Major’s ill-fated ‘Back to Basics’ campaign a decade ago, where the government’s preaching of traditional morality laid itself open to scandalous revelations about ministers’ torrid private affairs. Tony Blair has the problem of his own parenting shortfalls, as the press has predictably resuscitated the famous story of his teenage son being found drunk in Leicester Square.
Hazel Blears might want to curtain the council estates and get teenagers wearing uniforms, but that doesn’t mean she can make these things happen. Life does not work according to government diktat: especially when that diktat is as morally vacuous as New Labour’s ‘culture of respect’.
But while there is some scepticism about how the government can enforce a culture, there is a general consensus that it would be a good thing to have. The idea that people should be respected for what they are, rather than what they do, chimes very well with our self-esteeming times. There is a notion that challenging others, judging or criticising them, is a problem, and that public life would be improved if only people could be taught to respect each others’ differences, and leave each other alone. This is a profoundly antisocial idea, and will only damage the ‘social fabric’ that the government claims it is trying to restore.
The way the ‘respect’ thing works is illustrated by the strange debate about teenagers in hooded tops. These teenagers have been banned from Bluewater shopping centre in Kent because those engaged in antisocial behaviour hide their faces from the CCTV cameras -behaviour that is disrespectful to other shoppers, and to those who run the mall. Now some have complained that the fuss about their dress is disrespectful to teenagers’ sense of personal identity – not least because the shopping centre sells these very tops.
From there, the discussion has moved on to ‘teenage yobs’ doing community service, and Blears’ idea that they dress in the manner of American chain gangs, who wear uniforms as part of an exercise in public shaming. Yet Blears is keen to take the authoritarian edge off all this: it is not about shaming, but about making it visible that justice is being done, and these yobs won’t be breaking rocks as they do in the States, but making floral hanging baskets and other visibly useful endeavours. So it’s about respect to the community, by showing that the kids are being punished; and respect for the offenders, by giving them something therapeutic to do.
Blears’ proposals have met with criticism from those who feel that such a scheme would still stigmatise the offenders too much, and suggestions that the yobs should be publicly respected, too. Chris Fox, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers – not widely known for its sympathy to offenders – has proposed that community service is accompanied with ‘publicity – notices, signs, etc – to show what has been done’, because ‘the public needs to see that people who have misbehaved and been antisocial have tried to think about what they did and actually repaid a little bit’ (5).
It is ironic that Chris Fox concludes his comments by saying ‘What we want are a range of sentences that actually make sure that the public have trust and faith in the criminal justice system’, for this ‘culture of respect’ goes against every principle of justice, and judgement, and responsibility. If this were to be institutionalised, criminals would not be judged to be morally reprehensible because of their behaviour, but respected for their identity as offenders and encouraged to try to make amends. Blears says that she will not judge the family with no furniture and no curtains according to how they raise their children (apart from anything else, how does she know?); she will respect their identity as a scumbag household with a too-large telly and hope that someone will cajole them to give more respect to models of acceptable parenting and furnishing.
According to this philosophy, everybody is to be respected for who they are – regardless of what they do. This is no soft option. While respecting us for who we are, the authorities are busily engaged in finding more insidious policies to change who we are – how we organise a family mealtime, how we think about our personal health. And ‘respect for others’ quickly becomes a highly restrictive mantra, discouraging people from saying or doing anything that might have an impact upon other people – spitting, smoking in public, wearing the wrong kind of clothes or saying the wrong thing about their religion.
The ‘culture of respect’ is a framework for an official code of conduct governing people’s relationships with one another, which seeks to replace spontaneity and passion with a distant, mistrustful kind of etiquette. And this is supposed to restore the damaged fabric of society? Fuck off!
spiked-issue: Election 2005
(1) ‘Respect’ key to Blair third term, BBC News, 17 May 2005; Queen’s Speech at-a-glance, BBC News, 17 May 2005
(2) US-style uniforms for yobs in new disorder crackdown, Observer, 15 May 2005; Fashion item or symbol of fear?, Observer. 15 May 2005
(3) What’s the dress code?, Guardian, 17 May 2005
(4) Limits of laws, The Times (London), 18 May 2005
(5) Clarke backs uniforms for young offenders, Guardian, 18 May 2005
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