By Bill Kirkman
`People in authority can easily alienate people by treating them badly, or with contempt. When they do this, they will certainly not enjoy respect, nor will they deserve to.'
NOT TRUSTED: A lesson which emerged from the recent British general election was that many people do not trust politicians. PHOTO: REUTERS
RESPECT is the latest mantra in the British political vocabulary. Tony Blair's newly elected government is pledged to tackle the problem of "disrespect" in society.
It is a policy with which in essence it is hard to argue. There are undoubtedly many manifestations of lack of respect. The way in which some teenagers behave is one example which has been making headlines. In particular, the practice of wearing "hoodies" hooded tops which some teenagers have adopted has provoked much concern. One shopping centre in Kent has banned "hoodies", because they are seen as menacing and because the hood conceals the wearer's identity from CCTV cameras.
Like many populist policies, however, it is long on rhetoric, short on real content. It is easy to brand groups of people by their appearance, or by their age group. It is easy to reach judgments by stereotype; easy, and very dangerous. "He has this kind of haircut, or wears this kind of garment, so he must be anti-social" is a demonising approach. It can be applied in all kinds of ways. In Britain, for example, instances of racial stereotyping are still far too common (though much less common than a generation ago). Two days ago, as it happens, I was talking to a young man who lives in Brixton, one of the most racially mixed parts of London (and one of which I have some knowledge). We agreed that it has many advantages as a place to live. He added and it was no surprise to me that people hearing that he lived there voiced their assumption that he must be constantly in fear of attack by black fellow citizens. The truth, he remarked, is quite different; he has been threatened with attack twice, each time by young white people.
If there are problems of anti-social behaviour, as there undoubtedly are, it is surely more important to look for the causes, and tackle them, than to seek refuge from what may be distasteful reality by pandering to prejudice.
One point at which to begin is to recognise that respect has to be earned. People in authority whether teachers, employers, police, politicians can easily alienate people by treating them badly, or with contempt. When they do this, they will certainly not enjoy respect, nor will they deserve to.
Lessons for politicians
One lesson which emerged from the recent British general election was that many people do not trust politicians. It was clear in attitudes to both Labour and Conservative parties. People felt and still feel that the politicians do not treat them with respect, and, not surprisingly, that feeling is mutual.
We have seen in the past few days a good example of how respect can be won by unlikely people. George Galloway, a highly controversial, uncompromising politician, who was expelled by the Labour Party largely because of his attitude to Iraq, fought the election as a member of the Respect Party (yes, really!) and defeated the Labour candidate. Accused in the United States of profiting from Saddam Hussein's regime, through oil, he flew to Washington and appeared before the Senate Sub-committee on Investigations. George Galloway blasted them, describing his accusers as a bunch of "pro-war, pro-Israel neocons".
It was not the sort of language, or the sort of behaviour to which the U.S. Senate is accustomed. In Britain, Mr. Galloway has been an equivocal rather than a popular figure, yet when he took part, after his return from Washington, in the television "Question Time" programme, and repeated his attacks on the Bush Government and the Blair Government, he was cheered to the echo. Why? Because he is seen as someone willing to stand up for himself against his former party, and the U.S. authorities, neither of which had shown respect for him.
Where respect is concerned, it is behaviour that should be the issue, not unorthodox opinions or dress. Let me suggest an extreme example of the danger of getting that wrong. There have been some high-profile cases recently of financial scandals perpetrated by senior people in the business community. They demonstrated a total lack of respect for normal standards of honesty, and for people affected by their behaviour. Their traditional "uniform" is suit and tie. If anyone suggested that people wearing suits and ties should be banned from a shopping centre the suggestion would be, rightly, laughed out of court. It might be wise to think carefully why one "uniform" is acceptable, another is not.
Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge, U.K. E-mail him at: email@example.com
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