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.

On the whole, Sennett argues, here and in some of his previous work, we don’t understand the importance of a certain kind of impersonality in our relationships with each other: an impersonality that is particularly appropriate in public spaces and not to be confused with indifference nor assumed to entail unkindness. Impersonality of this sort is at odds with the assumption that the most vital connections are made when all the concerned parties open up, find what they have in common and come to be comfortable with each other. Such purging of distance and discomfort, according to Sennett, stops one recognising and responding to the autonomy of others – that requires understanding that there is a great deal about other people that one does not and perhaps cannot know. Indeed, the consequence of ‘the supposedly humanitarian desire to erase impersonality in social relations’ is antagonism towards someone perceived to be an outsider, as not sharing a common identity.

Thrown into the company of strangers we may turn inward, out of fear, or indifference, or the belief that only in that way shall we find our ‘true’ selves; or we may turn outward, anticipating interactions that offer neither a sense of wholeness nor comfort in company but exposure of oneself and others as ‘unknowns, puzzles, presences’. Impersonality, as Sennett understands it (acknowledging a debt to Hannah Arendt even while offering what he takes to be a corrective to her views), does not keep people of different racial or ethnic or economic backgrounds from engaging fruitfully with one another; on the contrary, it prevents robust social relations from collapsing into attempts to find or make others into facsimiles of oneself. Though seeing or imagining close similarities can provide a point of connection, equality is not to be confused with sameness: treating the autonomy of others as equal to one’s own requires an acknowledgment of their opacity.

The respect under examination in Sennett’s new book requires the same ‘grant of autonomy to others’ that in his earlier books is central to the possibility of social bonds among strangers, and crucial to undermining ‘the obsession with persons at the expense of more impersonal social relations’. But understanding the close connection between respect and acknowledgment of autonomy is only part of the story. Just as, in his earlier work, Sennett took pains to try to describe the ‘artistic energies in everyday life’ that must be ‘mobilised’ if strangers are not simply to live in a sea of difference, so in Respect he insists on our seeing respect as ‘an expressive performance. That is, treating others with respect doesn’t just happen, even with the best will in the world; to convey respect means finding the words and gestures which make it felt and convincing.’ But if that is the case, then not only will ‘sheer goodwill’ fail to provide the answer to the scarcity of respect, so will ‘institutional levelling’ of the inequalities woven into differences of class and race (it’s a mystery why Sennett, otherwise alert to the play of gender differences, doesn’t mention them here, especially given the dreadful power of the heavily racialised and genderised image of the ‘welfare mother’). It’s not that goodwill and political change are unwelcome, only that they are insufficient. We need to learn the ‘practices of respect’.

In insisting that feelings of goodwill or compassion are insufficient, Sennett is not saying simply that some kind of action (providing food or shelter, for example, or trying to change welfare requirements) is also necessary. Showing respect is a matter of the appropriate kind of performance, the success of which is to be measured not by how well one’s words, acts or gestures convey one’s feelings, but how well they embody what is taken to be respect in a community of strangers, of people who don’t know and don’t need to know one another’s subjective lives. Meaningful exchanges in the public world take place within what Sennett has called ‘codes of impersonal meaning’. Mutual dependence on such codes should not be considered a worrying sign of ‘inauthentic’ relations among people. Sennett believes that artistic performance – in the theatre, at the concert hall – can be our guide. No convincing actor or musician can treat her performance as the occasion to reveal her inner thoughts and feelings. That isn’t what the play or the music is about – we come to hear what Shakespeare or Stravinsky wrote, not to find out about the true being of the performer. The rough parallel in the social world to the written words and musical notations is a ‘social text’ which we must learn to read and to deploy, but which, Sennett has often lamented, becomes ever more obscure as it becomes less and less ‘meaningful to join with other persons without the compulsion to know them as persons’.

Performance – particularly musical performance, with which Sennett has extensive acquaintance – not only provides him with a way of trying to clarify what he means when he says that respect requires more than right feelings or just political conditions. He also uses the collaborative work of chamber musicians – string quartets, for example, or soloists and their accompanists – to illustrate how close attention to the needs of others can be both impersonal and intimate. The qualities musicians must develop to play well together offer an analogue to the formation of character – character, as Sennett understands it, being what allows us to express respect, and more generally enter into expressive relations with others, in terms of the social text.

In the penultimate sentence of the book, Sennett sums up what he takes to be ‘the nub of the problem’: ‘how the strong can practise respect towards those destined’ – given certain intractable conditions – ‘to remain weak’. His diagnosis suggests that when Aretha Franklin called out for a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T, she was referring to a good for which the demand seriously outpaces the supply; moreover, the capacity to do something about the shortage is and has long been in danger of atrophying. Nonetheless, Sennett holds out hope that the ‘practices of respect’ are still learnable.

He highlights several means of gaining respect: developing a talent, taking care of oneself, contributing to a community. He’s particularly interested in the kind of self-respect that can emerge from the execution of skill – in making soup or sewing a suture, in street-cleaning or playing the cello. Indeed, Sennett makes clear that his own talents as a cellist provided both a way out of the welfare system in which he grew up and a solid and sustaining source of self-respect. Though a physical impediment forced him to abandon that career, his talents as a writer have won him the respect of others and, one assumes, continuing self-respect (though he doesn’t include that in the autobiographical details which, as an arch anti-confessionalist, he offers here only with considerable reluctance). This makes it all the more surprising that Respect is a clumsily, almost dreamily constructed book. Sennett’s cautionary description of it as ‘an experiment . . . neither a book of practical policies for the welfare state nor a full-blown autobiography’ can’t make up for its caroming syncopation or for an offhandedness uncharacteristic of the work that precedes it and on which it draws.

I am surely not alone in having come to look forward to each new book of Sennett’s. But in the case of Respect one isn’t so much invited to revisit his other work as required to revisit it in order to make sense of what he is trying to get at in this one. Too many ideas are simply recycled. For example, in discussing the place of compassion among strangers, Sennett more or less warms up old remarks on Arendt’s prescriptions for relations in the public realm (from The Conscience of the Eye), and Auden’s gloss on Brueghel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus in ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’ (from Flesh and Stone). The wide acquaintance with history of art, architecture, philosophy, religion, psychology, music, theatre and the novel that for the most part serves Sennett so well in the earlier books here appears all too often in the form of name-dropping. A short paragraph on page 234, for instance, consists of a snippet each from ‘the philosopher Michael Polanyi’, ‘the literary theorist M.M. Bahktin’, ‘the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty’. In some cases it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that either Sennett or his research assistants have fudged their homework: surely if Sennett had read the civil engineer Henry Petroski’s The Evolution of Useful Things (or other parts of the Petroski corpus) he wouldn’t refer to this lover of bridges and books, post-its and paper clips, as ‘the computer technologist’.

Still, it’s often worth being there for the ride: in one particularly welcome section of the book Sennett tries to uncouple dependence from shame. He wonders whether the shame that attaches to public dependence is associated with dependence in private, between friends, lovers, children and parents; he offers evidence that in countries such as Japan shame tarnishes not the dependent person but those who fail to respond well to the expression of need in others; he points out that at least some businesses realise that it is not good for the bottom line if their workers are ashamed to need help; and, as we’ve seen, he urges those in the world of welfare to think of dependence as compatible with autonomy, rather than conflating it with a shameful passivity. But except for a brief mention of the ways in which the ‘free market’ protects big business, and of the ‘weight of privilege’ shoring up the self-confidence of his cohorts in the 1960s generation of college students, Sennett is silent about the dependence of the strong and the measures taken to obscure it. It would not be possible for the CEO of a corporation to draw a salary 400 times that of the corporation’s average worker were it not for the existence of complicated economic arrangements and legal protections on which the proud executive – isn’t it just marvellous how well he takes care of himself and his family? – depends. The rescue of the US savings and loan industry bled and continues to bleed American taxpayers much more than the puny funds set aside for non-corporate welfare. There is plenty of evidence that the weak are fully aware of how dependent the strong are on the public infrastructure it is supposedly shameful for the weak to need. Public recognition of the depth of such dependence can provide moments of delight for the weak and embarrassment, if not shame, for the strong – recent news stories full of detail about the intricate social and economic scaffolding that made it possible for George W. Bush, that fervent opponent of affirmative action, to get into Yale were particularly delicious.

So while Sennett points to ways in which shame gets coupled with public but not private dependence, he doesn’t say much to remind us that not all forms of public dependence are stigmatised. This is too bad, since one powerful way of trying to undo the shame associated with adult dependence is to be as clear as possible about the many forms it takes. But Sennett’s project is not to focus on what props up the strong but to explore what the strong can offer the weak in terms of respect. To repeat his take-away message: ‘In society, and particularly in the welfare state, the nub of the problem we face is how the strong can practise respect toward those destined to remain weak.’ There is a danger that framing the problem in this way reintroduces the very passivity he is at pains to detach from the condition of dependence: the weak are waiting for respect from the strong. Moreover, Sennett doesn’t really explore the meaning and value of respect to the weak. Knowing that people want and need respect, or hearing more specifically that the strong ought to learn to show it to the weak, doesn’t tell us anything about the place of respect in the panoply of goods in a person’s life. Indeed, if Sennett is right in thinking that it is still necessary to acknowledge that another’s world may be different from mine, even in ways I can’t imagine, it’s no wonder the words Aretha Franklin sings just after ‘R-E-S-P-E-C-T’ are ‘Find out what it means to me.’

The complicated relation between being an object of respect and other ways of being and appearing in the world emerges out of something Sennett says in passing about his old mentor, the Harvard sociologist David Riesman, the author of The Lonely Crowd. Sennett’s picture of what the Jewish Riesman achieved in relation to the wealthy Wasp elite into which he married focuses not on the importance of his feeling respected by them but on his capacity to treat the Wasp world ‘with irony and without envy’. Sennett clearly admires Riesman for having a view of his relation to Wasp society that freed him from the need for their respect, or at least kept it in perspective, and this admiration introduces a possibility at odds with the hope, central to his book, that respect of the strong for the weak is achievable even in the context of their radically unequal positions: the offer of such respect may simply reflect and reinforce the very inequality Sennett hopes can be bracketed by it. Perhaps we should listen for the irony in Aretha Franklin’s voice.