[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Wednesday, 11 January 2006, 14:16 GMT
So what on earth is respect?
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News Online community affairs

"Give respect, Get respect" says the government's action plan - but what on earth does it mean? Can we really define respect?

It has been talked of for months, and now Prime Minister Tony Blair has launched his respect agenda for his administration's third term.

In his introduction to the plan, Mr Blair says: "What lies at the heart of [anti-social] behaviour is a lack of respect for values that almost everyone in this country shares - consideration for others, a recognition that we all have responsibilities as well as rights, civility and good manners."

The challenge is that this is often very difficult to define. Nobody likes yobbish behaviour, littering and so on.

But what about fast food? Many older people think it is the height of bad manners to walk down the street chomping on a kebab - and even worse to fill the bus with the smells of saturated fats.

At the same time, younger people have grown up in a culture of fast food so for some scoffing on the street may be second nature. But is that disrespectful, rude, a generational divide or simply a crime against your digestive system?

Children using phones in class
"I'm in the classroom..."
Mobile phones are another example. Tony Blair was reportedly aghast in a session with head teachers when he discovered that pupils had phones in schools. Some heads were not that bothered - particularly those in rural areas where the phones were a useful tool.

This is the dilemma for government, to draw the line in the sand between what it can justifiably champion as decent right-thinking activity and that which it can say is thoroughly beastly and anti-social.

Do unto others

So how does it set about doing this? The cover of the government action plan is not just a neat piece of graphic design, it is also a philosophical statement.

Respect logo
The cycle of respect
The logo of two arrows circling each other very consciously borrows from recycling. What goes around, comes around, do unto others as you would have others do unto you.

Here Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his "social contract" comes in. The 18th century French philosopher argued that people should give up their natural rights to do whatever they jolly well please so that society can function.

That idea (also similarly devised by Plato, Hobbes and other great thinkers) is a key element of the modern state. So when Tony Blair talks about respect, or of "rights and responsibilities", he is talking about our contract with each other - and with government.

But if this balanced contract has indeed gone wrong, what happened?

Children are encouraged to think that they are the equals of their parents, their teachers and people in authority
Roger Scruton

Philosopher Roger Scruton says that the reason why respect has disappeared is because it is no longer taught.

Insolence goes unpunished in the young, and what starts in the playground is translated into adulthood.

However, Richard Sennett, one of Britain's leading sociologists, argues the contrary: We should ask whether institutions treat individuals with respect, particularly those who are not powerful.

Shape up

The prime minister isn't being choosy about his definition as both of these arguments in some shape or form make it into his package, along with a third idea: that government has a responsibility to intervene on behalf of society if it believes individuals are failing in their personal duties.

In other words, if a local family from hell break the social contract, the authorities will enforce it.

Litter in a park
Hardly respectful?
This is usually tricky territory for politicians. John Major's ill-fated Back to Basics drive in 1993 fell down quicker than the trousers of some of his MPs caught by tabloid photographers.

The reason why politicians face a tough time on this wicket is because of an entirely different word: deference.

If government packs people off on parenting classes, is that just helping them get on in life, or a case of: "We know better than you - so just be thankful".

Mr Blair appears confident that he can avoid being accused of demanding deference, saying: "It is not in my gift or anyone in central government to guarantee good behaviour or to impose a set of common values about acceptable behaviour".

He adds that his respect agenda is "not about returning to the days of 'knowing your place'."

Yet, confusingly, he then says that if people who need help will not take it, "we will make them".

Two-fingered salute

Which brings us back to a question left unanswered by the title of the action plan: If Mr Blair is demanding respect, is he also giving it?

There's an idea among some criminologists and sociologists that if respect isn't a two-way street, you create something they call "asymmetric citizenship".

They warn that unless the young are treated decently, they are likely to react in precisely in the ways society most fears.

This isn't just about manners. Studies have found that benefit cheats often believe they have a de facto right to rip off the state because they believe the state has failed them; they have nothing left to lose so decide to stick two fingers up to society.

The irony is that the very same people have also been found to be socially conservative, expressing shock and outrage when they witness the anti-social behaviour of others.

A case of "do as I say, don't do as I do" - another circular philosophy many associate with politicians.

Some of your comments so far:

As a teacher at a school for children with behavioural and social problems, I'm witness to their problems on a daily basis. I would say that 98% are a direct product of their parents' behaviour. They have few manners, a sense of injustice, belief that they are owed by the state and no respect for others unless they are physically bigger than themselves. When you meet the parents, it all makes sense.
Louise, Chester, England

I'm Spanish born and all my family still live there. To hear children abusing their elders or other fellow citizens is unheard of. In fact, they have a different way of addressing an elder or person they don't know. Whereas here we would say "you" regardless of age or position, in Spain (and France, Italy...) they have "tu" for people you know or people younger than you, and "usted" for people you don't know or elders or people in a position of authority as a mark of respect.
Dave, Leeds

The Japanese may seem excessively bound by rules, spoken and unspoken, but the results are there to see. There are clear guidelines for the use of mobile phones, especially on public transport (switch to silent mode, not talking on the train and so on). Also, it is considered bad-mannered to eat while walking or standing (except ice cream). If people can go about their daily lives observing common courtesies without prompting, then fine, we don't need such rulebooks, but evidence suggests otherwise. Imagine trains in which people aren't constantly yacking on the phone, streets free of used chewing gum, town centres which aren't full of testosterone-fuelled violent drunks, the f-word echoing night and day...
Marcus, Tokyo, Japan

I work for a company where there seems very little respect for others and they don't seem to worry about it or plan to do anything to improve matters. It's run by middle-aged men, an age group that claim "it wasn't like that in my day". How can we expect youngsters to respect their society when us adults don't seem to respect each other. Shouldn't we be the ones leading by example?
Sam Coule, Farnborough

It's not about deference, it's about duty and dignity. People should behave in a way that is socially acceptable because it is our duty as a member of this society. We do this, not because we defer to those whom we imagine to be superior, but for our own dignity. Self-respect needs to feature in this campaign as well.
Jane, London, UK

Where I come from in Africa discipline was key. Parents said jump and children asked how high. Other adults were given carte blanche to discipline unruly kids that didn't belong to them. You would never see a situation of a kid hurling abuse at adults as I see regularly on the train, and even between parents and their children. Even now as an independent adult I dare not speak back to my mother for fear of a sharp knock on the head.
A Ajayi, London

Something should be done about the lack of respect prevalent today. But I don't think it is confined to the young. Post-80s Thatcher has left a society who are very much in it for themselves with little left over for consideration for others. It will take decades for the initiatives implemented now to take effect so they should be well thought out and dedicated to a long-term solution rather than the superficial quick-fix option favoured by Tony Blair's government.
Michelle, London, England

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Your e-mail address
Town/city and country
Your comment

The BBC may edit your comments and not all emails will be published. Your comments may be published on any BBC media worldwide.


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific