Sock it to me

Elizabeth Spelman

  • Respect: The Formation of Character in an Age of Inequality by Richard Sennett
    Allen Lane, 288 pp, £20.00, January 2003, ISBN 0 7139 9617 X

Among the more reasonable demands we make of our fellow human beings is that they treat us with respect. ‘Just a little bit’, as Aretha Franklin sang and sang again, seems to go a long way. Few exchanges among people appear to cost those who offer it so little and benefit those who receive it so much. ‘Why, then,’ Richard Sennett asks, ‘should it be in short supply?’

Though Sennett frequently defines such scarcity as a lack of ‘mutual respect’ – as if none of us, no matter who we are, gets enough of it – a good many of his examples and much of his analysis focus on welfare recipients, inhabitants of public housing and others vulnerable to being demeaned by a particular kind of dependence on bureaucratic institutions and their representatives. Indeed, among the more obvious aims of Respect is to clarify terms central to current debates about welfare reform, by describing the ways people gain respect and examining the meaning of dependence and its relation to autonomy. He doesn’t join issue with particular reformers, left, right or centre: his recommendations are of a more general sort and flow from a broader set of concerns at the heart of much of his earlier work – the kinds of social bond that are possible and desirable among strangers inhabiting shared public space, and what it takes to create and sustain them.

Given a powerful cultural presumption that adults ought to be able to take care of themselves, debates about welfare are likely to focus on the extent to which depending on others has to erode the self-respect of recipients and undermine the respect others have for them. Sennett thinks it quite possible for welfare agents, social workers and volunteers to treat their clients with respect, but doing so requires that they not blot out or occlude the consciousness of those whose needs they are attending to, that they take seriously, as Sennett sometimes puts it, the Otherness of others.

Sennett is particularly concerned with the notion that one need learn nothing about the other, and with its opposite: that one needs to learn everything. The Cabrini public housing project in Chicago, where Sennett lived as a young boy, gave its inhabitants almost no part to play in decisions about its everyday running. They were managed but not seen, treated as if they couldn’t possibly have any ideas about the structure of their own and other people’s lives – ‘rendered spectators to their own needs, mere consumers of care provided to them’. Passivity was assumed to be inherent in the state of dependency.

The conflation of dependence with passivity has not gone unquestioned in the history of the welfare state: at least some of its architects recognised that ‘the great bureaucratic dilemma’ was how to keep clients from becoming mere passive recipients of care. Sennett doesn’t claim to have discovered a solution to the complex ‘riddle’ of how to find or build autonomy into dependence, but he does think a more careful understanding of certain features of autonomy can be helpful. Autonomy is undermined when one thinks one can and should learn everything about the other. If one way of denying respect to others is to treat them as too strange – so substandardly human as not to have designs on and for their own lives – another way is to regard them as not strange enough: as fully understandable, so like oneself as to be not really ‘other’ at all.

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