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A tyranny of ‘respect’

The UK government's obsession with tackling antisocial behaviour is making society even more lonely and fragmented.

Stuart Waiton

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The rise and rise of ‘respect’

Until the Nineties, the term ‘antisocial behaviour’ did not really exist. Yet over the past 15 years this social problem has apparently grown and grown; it is now understood to be one of the biggest problems – if not the biggest problem – facing society.

So seriously does the British government take the problem of ‘antisocial behaviour’ that immediately following New Labour’s victory in the General Election in 2005, Prime Minister Tony Blair launched the ‘Respect Agenda’. This will extend the ‘politics of behaviour’ further still, into the realms of politeness and manners. A Respect Action Plan was recently published by the government’s Respect Task Force. It comes with a note written by each member of the Cabinet – from the health secretary to the secretary of state for work and pensions to, of course, the minister of respect, Hazel Blears – explaining what contribution their departments will make to the battle against antisocial behaviour.

In 1997, when New Labour first came to power, ‘petty crime’ or antisocial behaviour tended to be discussed as a problem only in reference to ‘serious crime’; for example, there were debates about how antisocial behaviour could easily become something more worrying, more seriously criminal. One broken window might soon lead to another and another, went the argument, until an environment of disorder has been created where serious crime can take hold.

Now, antisocial behaviour is not only seen as a serious social problem in itself – it also apparently has the power to drag society down, and is frequently described as a form of behaviour that undermines communities and makes life ‘hell’ for all of us. If antisocial behaviour goes unchecked, we are told, then neighbourhoods will be undermined by yobs; workplaces will become overrun by abusive clients; schools will be undermined by the constant disorder and threatening behaviour of children. Today the tables have been turned: crime itself is now seen as a serious issue because of its association with the apparently even bigger and more destabilising problem of antisocial behaviour.

Crime still hits the headlines, and there are still fevered debates about ‘cultures’ of crime – ‘knife culture’, ‘gun culture’, and so on. Yet as there has been a statistical fall in the level of crime, politicians and local authorities have tended to shift their focus to the more common and everyday problem of behaviour. So while the home secretary deals with crime as well as numerous other issues, we have a specific and dedicated minister for respect whose sole remit is to ‘return public parks, streets and shopping centres’ to individuals, so that they can ‘go about their lives free from intimidation’ (Respect Action Plan, 2006).

According to the Respect Action Plan, it is not easy to explain what lies behind the ‘problem of behaviour’. It points out that some people believe that social trends – changes in the family, or the declining influence of churches and trade unions, for example – have influenced the change in behaviour. But these wider social factors are quickly forgotten about in the government’s plan, and instead risk factors such as ‘poor parenting’, ‘peer pressure’, ‘drug and alcohol misuse’ and the rest become the focus of attention. If we accept, as the Respect Action Plan does, that these ‘factors…are strongly associated with antisocial behaviour’, then we have something of a tautology: the cause of bad behaviour is bad behaviour.

In New Labour circles, there is one other underlying belief about the cause of antisocial behaviour today, and that is the spawn of Essex Man – the greedy children of the selfish Thatcherite parents who refused to vote Labour in the Eighties have apparently come back to haunt society. These are disconnected ‘underwolves’, who have the capacity to ‘ruin pretty much everyone’s quality of life’, as then Demos writers Helen Wilkinson and Geoff Mulgan put it in 1995 (Wilkinson and Mulgan, Freedom’s Children: Work, Relationships and Politics for 18-34 Year Olds In Britain Today, 1995).

In this essay I will argue that the rise of antisocial behaviour as the defining issue of our age has less to do with any imagined emergence of expansive individualism, and is more the consequence of a sense of vulnerability amongst an individuated public. Today, we are more and more inclined to demand the ‘right’ to be protected from the actions of others. It is a ‘quiet life’, rather than the good life, that we crave today.

Talk to the hand

The problem of antisocial behaviour is sometimes portrayed as the work of a ‘selfish minority’, who, in the words of the government’s Respect Action Plan, do not share ‘the values of the majority’. But it is also understood to be part of a ‘culture of greed’, a far wider problem of a selfish society. According to Lynne Truss, in her 2005 book on manners and language Talk to the Hand, ours is a society imbued with a ‘climate of unrestrained solipsistic and aggressive self-interest’.

Truss’ book, which is subtitled The Utter Bloody Rudeness of Everyday Life, is a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic, suggesting that the British government is tapping into a genuine concern about a ‘loss of respect’. Surprisingly, though, and despite Truss’ obsessive focus on ‘rudeness’ in a book which she admits is a bit of a rant, there are more insights in Talk to the Hand than in any document the government has produced over the past 10 years.

Truss’ key insight is to argue that we live in a ‘hamster ball’ society, a world made up of individuals living in their own private bubbles. Here, she gets very close to describing the real problem we face today: not a problem of antisocial behaviour but rather the problem of living in an asocial society. In other words, ours is a society that lacks the capacity to connect people with one another through a system of meaning.

Looking at the problem in this way can be helpful, as it shifts the debate away from a myopic focus on antisocial behaviour, and it shines some light on some of the genuine and new problems with behaviour between people today.

According to Truss, in our more fragmented world, where the purpose of society is unclear and our individual role within it even more so, there have emerged new forms of introspection and a trend for people to play by their own rules. ‘Hey, my bubble, my rules’, as Truss puts it. This is a world where we walk around in our own private bubble, and the ‘public’ becomes something of an obstacle in our way as we listen to our iPods or text our friends. When we live such bubbled existences, says Truss, then standards and manners look more and more like they are being enforced upon us from without, and thus we become more inclined to stick two fingers up at them. ‘Authority’, Truss notes, ‘is largely perceived as a kind of personal insult’.

This sense of distance and separation between the individual and society rings true, where personal concerns override public interests, where our business is nobody else’s, where the separation between public and private seems to have broken down. As Truss observes, ‘It’s as if we now believe, in some spooky virtual way, that wherever we are, it’s home’.

Describing the way we have become disconnected from one another and increasingly inwardly focused, Truss argues that: ‘The once prevalent idea that, as individuals, we have a relationship with something bigger than ourselves, or bigger than our immediate circle, has become virtually obsolete.’

The ‘therapeutic me’

Despite Truss’ focus on rudeness in Talk to the Hand, and her misguided argument – in my view – that the ‘brute state of materialism’ and ‘selfish individualism’ are to blame for the bloody rudeness of everyday life, her book also hints at an alternative explanation for changes in behaviour: the rise of a more ‘therapeutic’ society. She describes a society where the mantra ‘talk to the hand’ expresses an inward-looking and rather fragile sense of the self: a defensive retreat into the world of self-esteem.

Truss is able to see that the world of asocial man also helps to determine how we experience the behaviour of others. Isolated in our own bubble, we may find that other people are occasionally rude to us – but more significantly, I would argue, we are also inclined to have an exaggerated sense of their behaviour as problematic or threatening.

Throughout Talk to the Hand, Truss comes very close to exaggerating the problem of behaviour herself: every commuter, shop assistant and telephonist she encounters seems to be a caricatured example of today’s talk-to-the-hand mentality. Unconvincingly, she also describes how car drivers constantly cut in front of each other these day – kind of, ‘my road, my rules’.

However, Truss also notes that people in Britain still queue quietly, and she cites the work of Kate Fox, a researcher who walked around bumping into people and discovered that the vast majority of them said ‘sorry’. Fox concluded that manners had not declined in Britain.

Despite Truss’ concerns about the changing nature of relationships between people, she also – if only every now and then in the book – recognises that most of the people most of the time are pretty decent to one another. ‘And yet’, she notes, ‘if you ask people, they mostly report with vehemence that the world has become a ruder place. They are at breaking point. They feel like blokes in films who just. Can’t. Take. Any. More.’

Unlike the myriad government ministers who relentlessly take the preoccupation with antisocial behaviour at face value, Truss has the presence of mind to recognise a contradictory situation: people are often still civil to each other but seem to believe that everyone else is being rude. ‘So what on earth is going on?’ she asks.

What is going on is that the bubble we’re all living in has a pretty thin skin; it encircles a rather anxious and vulnerable therapeutic me. There has been a shift in recent years from the idea of public man – a strong-willed citizen who can make decisions and take actions by himself – to therapeutic man, where we are increasingly seen as fragile, potentially damaged, and in need of help from apparently benign authorities to manage not just our day-to-day lives but also our innermost emotions and feelings. Behind today’s therapeutic mindset there lurks the idea that humans are frail and weak; that we need constant protection from others and from the challenges thrown up by life itself.

In such circumstances, the ‘bad behaviour’ of other people, even young children, can take on a far greater significance than it would have in previous times. My experience of driving, for example, is the opposite of Lynne Truss’. Rather than drivers constantly being rude, they seem to spend more time than ever before waving thanks to each other or flashing their indicators in gratitude. In a world where one of the few positive day-to-day connections we have with other people is through polite exchanges, politeness has become more significant, not less. We may not all practice it, but, almost to a man, we are concerned about it – and when politeness is not forthcoming, we react in a more extreme way to this perceived snub. We ‘rage’, or more often we are simply internally outraged, without actually saying it out loud.

Our overreaction to ‘antisocial behaviour’ is often not directly determined by the behaviour of the ‘antisocial’ person; rather, it is when our fragile world of politeness breaks down that we seem to sense the more fundamental problem of our isolation and lack of connection with those around us. In this respect, experiencing or witnessing ‘antisocial behaviour’ seems to expose our sense of alienation within today’s asocial society. When politeness is all we have connecting us to others, incivility takes on an exaggerated significance.

In a humorous description of how she feels holding the door open for people who refuse to say thank you, Truss notes her own sense of wounded dignity. ‘You feel obliterated’, she writes. ‘Are you invisible, then? Have you disappeared?’ She continues:

‘Instead of feeling safe, you are frightened. You succumb to accelerated moral reasoning. This person has no consideration for others, therefore has no imagination, therefore is a sociopath representative of a world packed with sociopaths. When someone is rude to you, the following logic kicks in: “I have no point of connection with this person…A person who wouldn’t say thank you is also a person who would cut your throat…Oh my God, society is in meltdown and soon it won’t be safe to come out.” Finally you hate the person who did not say thank you.’

Disconnected

In a world where people had a strong sense of connection with society – with institutions, organisations and beliefs, and consequently with one another – the irritations of everyday life were not considered to be of such life-changing importance; they were not read as signs that society must be in ‘meltdown’.

Again this is something that Truss herself recognises when she looks at the issue of smoking. ‘Personally’, she explains, ‘I hate smoking [but]…I do remember a time when it just didn’t bother me’. So what has changed? It’s not just a health issue, she notes, but rather:

‘I used to accept something I truly don’t accept anymore: that being with other people involved a bit of compromise. When you were not alone, you suspended a portion of yourself. You became a member of a crowd. You didn’t judge people by your own standards. I believe we have simply become a lot more sensitive to other people’s behaviour in a climate of basic fearful alienation.’

What Truss is describing is the diminution of the ‘public’, and with it a growing intolerance of other people and their foibles. The world of ‘my bubble, my rules’ may have resulted in the emergence of a ‘me generation’, but it is a therapeutic me rather than a self-interested or ambitious me. Our society seems to be made up of introspective individuals who seem less aware of any social mores beyond their own selves, and, perhaps more significantly, appear prone to overreacting to those around them. Thus, we seek refuge in our own private world. It seems to me that today’s ‘offender’ and ‘offended’ are often two sides of the same asocial coin.

The strength of Talk to the Hand is not in the identification of ‘The Utter Bloody Rudeness of Everyday Life’, which, after all, in our world of ASBOs and Respect Action Plans, is hardly a novel outlook. Rather, it is the implicit recognition that ours is an asocial society that gives the book its punch. Unfortunately, in the end, and like another useful book that addresses the issue of behaviour, Alexander Deane’s The Great Abdication, Truss’ starting point and end point is a preoccupation with rudeness, or antisocial behaviour.

With Truss, this is forgivable, as she acknowledges that her book is a bit of a rant, and recognises the limitations of what she is proposing. What Truss ultimately aspires to, she says, is ‘to be a zero impact member of society’. ‘But’, she continues, ‘does this qualify me as the opposite of an antisocial person? Quite honestly I don’t think it does, because that would be pro-social, which would involve acting on society’s behalf, and I don’t do that.’

Ironically, Truss ends up retreating into that very ‘bubble world’ that she identifies is one of the biggest problems we face in dealing with others today. Only Truss would like ‘her bubble, her world’ to be a little bit more polite than it is at present.

Asocial politics

However, if the more profound problem we face is one of an asocial society, then we need to address how we ‘burst the bubble’ and create a ‘pro-social’ society. Unfortunately, the trend at present is not to challenge the asocial nature of society and of individuals’ behaviour, but to endorse it and attempt to make connections through it.

The world of ‘my bubble my rules’, when it takes the form of teenagers wearing hoodies or drinking on street corners, results in new laws and forms of policing to prevent this ‘bad’ form of behaviour. But when ‘my bubble, my rules’ results in individuals suing their local councils because they have tripped over a paving stone, or taking their local hospital to court for an accident during surgery, society endorses such asocial behaviour. Rather than people feeling that they are part of society, that accidents sometimes happen, and that it would be wrong for them to drain the resources of their local authorities, today the ‘my bubble, my rules’ outlook is institutionalised through law and we are encouraged to blame and claim.

In a local community group I work with, the problem of antisocial youth is often raised with the local councillor who attends our meetings. Recently, one member of the group did indeed trip over a pavement stone: he broke his ankle, and then he did what is the done thing these days – sued the council. While the ‘disconnected nature of youth’ is leading to attempts to install CCTV cameras in my local area, nothing is said – even by the councillor – about the disconnected nature of adults reflected in this case.

Until relatively recently the idea that you would sue your council or health service for accidents that occurred in their areas – thus taking funds from usually hard-up local authorities – would have been unthinkable. Today, however, the use of the law to claim compensation for accidents and misfortunes is both shaped and encouraged by a cultural climate that separates the interests of people from society while also undermining a sense of personal responsibility.

In Scotland, where new antisocial behaviour laws and initiatives are forever being churned out by the Scottish Executive, and where concerns are constantly raised about the cost of having to deal with litter and graffiti, little is said about the more troubling issue of the £5 million worth of compensation that has been paid out to Scottish policemen and women over the past five years. Even for those people who are meant to be defending the ‘law and order of society’, today’s sense of individual grievance appears to override any wider sense of duty and responsibility. When the police start claiming for bites they receive from their own police dogs, ‘society’ really is in trouble.

Worse still, in terms of the loss of any sense of loyalty among individuals to society, is the situation where soldiers can make claims against the Ministry of Defence for not providing them with a safe working environment….

Rather than challenging these asocial developments, the state and the law has institutionalised the compensation culture. Unable to project and promote a national or social sense of purpose and responsibility, today’s elite has incorporated the outlook of ‘my bubble, my world’ into the framework of society.

The problem of the asocial society is that the relationship between the individual and society has broken down. However, politicians, who increasingly lack the capacity to unite people around a common set of beliefs and values, have attempted to engage with individuals within ‘their world’. In the process, our individual bubbles are actually being fortified against society by officialdom itself.

The authorities’ attempts to engage with the isolated and individual self can be seen in the way that key jobs for society, which once would have required a commitment to a wider purpose, are advertised these days. The ads for the Royal Navy on the Glasgow underground never fail both to amuse and depress me, with their promotion of a life full of sun and fun where you can make new friends. They can hardly be distinguished from ads for Club 18-30 holidays.

Similarly, the ads for teaching posts promote teaching as ‘enjoyable and stimulating’, where the kids are the most exciting people you’ll ever meet. These also do not present teaching as an important and socially responsible job that involves transferring knowledge to the next generation, but rather flag up the ‘fun’ that you as a teacher will (allegedly) have in the classroom. When kids start misbehaving and undermining their teachers’ sense of wellbeing, it is perhaps unsurprising that teachers too – given their belief that this job is apparently about making them feel special and happy – feel ‘obliterated’ and ‘frightened’.

Within education itself, the trend is towards engaging with and reinforcing the more introspective outlook (or ‘in’ look) of children, as captured in the growing significance of self-esteem as the ‘measure of man’ and the institutionalisation of ‘bullying awareness’ schemes. Rather than educating youngsters to climb out of their caricatured adolescent self-absorption, we appear to be encouraging their preoccupation with ‘how I feel’.

And in the criminal justice system, too, the authorities’ engagement with the vulnerable individual has grown rapidly in recent years. Now, rather than law being enforced by the state against the criminal, on behalf of all of us and of society itself, we have victim-centred justice – a form of ‘justice’ that really endorses the idea of ‘my bubble, my rules’, or in this case, ‘my feelings, my law’.

Respect for what?

Many arguments today, which appear to be coming from opposite sides of the fence, actually endorse the perspective of the asocial man. The reaction to the hoodie issue, for example, was not to raise a public debate about the use of CCTV cameras, but to cry ‘my hoodie, my rules’, as if Guardian readers’ lifestyle choice of wearing hoodies was under attack. Similarly, the reaction to proposals for more CCTV cameras and for the introduction of ID cards is often simply to question who is inspecting the inspectors: can we trust the people behind the cameras? So today’s distrustful asocial outlook can be seen both in those who favour CCTV cameras as a form of protection from the public and in those who oppose the cameras on the basis that they want to be protected from the protectors.

Ironically, even within the government’s Respect Agenda, the asocial outlook is encouraged rather than challenged; a kind of NIMBYism of the self is reinforced by New Labour’s version of Respect.

The government’s Respect Action Plan may sound like an old-fashioned attempt to instil good moral values in society. It also appears to be all about creating a more social society, with catchy subtitles such as ‘Everyone is part of everyone else’, and ‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts’. However, hidden within the very meaning of ‘respect’ promoted here, is the same asocial and equally amoral outlook that is coming to dominate politics and social policy more broadly.

Until recently, the idea of respect related to experience and achievement. Adults, for example, deserved respect from children due to the socially accepted notion that they, as mature, active subjects, the people who made society, should be looked up to by their less mature charges. Particular individuals were given respect for great things they had done: we looked up to our heroes as people who had achieved something important.

Respect was a socially ascribed category, something that was earned: it represented a judgement of certain individuals based on what they had done. There may have been battles over who should be seen as deserving of respect, with disagreements between conservatives and radicals, but all sides tended to celebrate the actions and attributes of certain individuals and institutions.

Today, by contrast, the idea of respect is devoid of content or of character. Everyone, we are told, should be respected – adults and children alike. Respect young people, the children’s commissioner tells us, and they will respect you (Guardian, 19 January 2006). In his book Respect, the sociologist Richard Sennett asks how the professional classes might give respect to the poor. Here, respect has become something handed down from above, often just for being who you are, rather than a set of values that we aspire towards that can take us beyond our selves.

‘Give respect get respect’ – that is the title of the opening chapter of the Respect Action Plan. It quotes young people defining respect in the following ways: ‘Being able to be the way I am without being bullied or skitted. And vice versa’; ‘Not offending or damaging someone else’s feelings or property’. This is a highly individualised, fragile and negative vision of respect. Rather than respect embodying values of achievement and character – something which, in the process of aspiring to, can help us change ourselves, to mature and gain self-respect – it has become something we demand simply for who we are.

In the framework of today’s preoccupation with antisocial behaviour, the demand for respect has become little more than a call to be nice to one another. To translate, ‘Give respect get respect’ really means ‘Be nice and others will be nice to you’. Rather than respect being a form of social judgement, we are told to be non-judgemental, to respect people for who they are. Indeed, we are actively encouraged to respect an individual’s self-esteem, which is seen as being easily damaged by any apparently hurtful social judgements. In essence, this is little different from the sentiment of ‘talk to the hand’, or the outlook of the child who challenges your right to question his behaviour by arguing, ‘I know my rights’.

Broken down to its basic elements, the idea of respect today is really: ‘Respect my bubble, my rules and I will respect yours.’ Rather than the individual being drawn out of himself through values that relate to society, society is validating the inward-looking and insecure outlook of the ‘therapeutic me’.

The government’s Respect Agenda is based on the idea that the state must protect vulnerable individuals. ‘Respect’ has become little more than the protection of one individual from the ‘abuses’ of others. It is not about saying ‘respect me, because I have done something to deserve it’, nor is it about respecting adults because they know best; rather, it is a demand that we should respect everybody because if we don’t then we will undermine them and their self-esteem. In other words, respect is now defined by the need to curb ‘bad behaviour’ and defend the vulnerable, rather than by ideas of what it is to be a good and strong-willed character who has achieved a status that deserves recognition. By saying everyone should be respected – young and old alike – the government actually undermines the idea of respecting adults and infantilises the notion of respect itself.

At a time when respect for the institutions of society is in decline and, according to a recent MORI poll, politicians are the least trusted group of people in society, the government is attempting to engage with the bubble world of the individual. In the process, respecting others has become contentless. Any sense of the ‘social’ informed by moral or political norms has been diminished, and today’s political elite instead promotes a respect agenda in which there is no sense of society beyond the feeling of the ‘therapeutic me’. Through this process people are encouraged to have respect for the ‘self’ rather than actively achieving self-respect. And showing good manners become little more than an acquiescence to the vulnerable individual: ‘respect’ for the therapeutic self.

Encouraging impotence

Traditionally, respect was given to adults because of their capacity to act. Today, respect is about not acting – about not harassing, upsetting, abusing, alarming or offending the vulnerable individual. There is no sense of individual capacity or of social responsibility, except in ensuring that our actions do not harm others.

This preoccupation with harm to others has been latched on to by a government devoid of any social or political capacity of its own, and which can only develop social policy around the framework of social control. Protecting the diminished subject – the fragile individual – is the basis for myriad antisocial behaviour initiatives. Disastrously, this approach takes the asocial self as the starting point and consequently reinforces the problem of the asocial society.

Rarely, if ever, are people encouraged to take responsibility for the behaviour of others. Rather, a framework is being established that encourages us all to resolve the irritations of everyday life – of noisy neighbours, rude commuters, rowdy kids and aggressive customers – by contacting the authorities to deal with these problems on our behalf. This both discourages the establishment of social norms by the public itself, and also adds to the sense of individual impotence.

Until recently, antisocial behaviour was understood as a problem to be resolved by people themselves. When children swore and dropped litter or neighbours were noisy, people were expected to take a socially responsible approach and act themselves to discuss and resolve such behaviour. Today we are less inclined to act; indeed we are discouraged from doing so. The various antisocial behaviour laws and programmes being introduced tell us the authorities will do it for us. Now there is a whole range of community wardens, police initiatives and helplines that we can contact to ask for help in dealing with any problems we have with other people’s behaviour.

When we fail to take responsibility for these problems – which we know, in our hearts, that we should be doing something about – then we diminish our sense of ourselves. By not acting we both sense and reinforce our own diminished subjectivity.

Despite New Labour’s proclivity to replace a sense of purpose with an ever-growing list of statutes, laws cannot resolve society’s problems. Lynne Truss notes that when a policeman kindly asks you to get out of your car, regardless of how politely this is done, it is not a form of good manners but of force. Manners, she notes, cannot be enforced. Today, through the process of relating to others through third-party mediators, individuals are actually being de-socialised. One consequence is that we increasingly feel comfortable engaging with others only within a regulated environment – such as in the exchange between a customer and a shopkeeper – rather than through a free exchange with members of the public.

Ultimately, despite some real issues of behaviour in our hamster ball world, the preoccupation with antisocial behaviour has emerged because of the loss of connection we feel with society and with those around us. This is something that is being reinforced by an asocial elite which lacks a social sense and which is equally disengaged from ‘public’ life. By engaging with the asocial individual through his or her fears, not only is the ‘my bubble, my rules’ outlook not overcome but the fragmented nature of society is reinforced.

Rather than examining how we can stop people being antisocial, the real question today is how can we create a ‘pro-social’ society; how can we burst the bubbles many of us seem to be living in? With this starting point there is the capacity to move beyond the myopic focus on antisocial behaviour, to raise the expectations of individuals to act for themselves, and also to identify how today’s elite is actually codifying rather than transforming the asocial nature of society.

Stuart Waiton is a director of the youth research group Generation Youth Issues.

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