This is an important book that reflects the temper of our times. People today are intensely sensitive to a "lack of respect". They are continually encouraged to crave respect - which is usually taken to mean affirmation. In our age of therapy, the demand for respect has become a self-conscious act to which we respond: "Hey, I am respecting you." The rhetoric of standardised respect has also been adopted by policy-makers, officials and politicians. The language of contemporary politics - inclusion, diversity, multiculturalism - upholds respect as one of its principal objectives.
Richard Sennett is concerned with the "fundamental discomfort which inequality arouses in modern society". Since the beginning of capitalism, there have been numerous attempts to provide a measure of comfort to the losers of society. In the past, it was the fear of class conflict that created a demand for according respect to those who have failed. Pope Leo XIII's encyclical Rerum Novarum is paradigmatic in this respect. In exchange for accepting the sanctity of private property, it offered workers recognition for the dignity of their work. Today, we still feel the need to reassure the poor that we respect them. "How the strong can practise respect towards those destined to remain weak" is one of the key problems that Sennett explores.
But Respect is not a restatement of a 19th-century problem because, in our times, the demand for respect is not confined to those who are economically deprived. Frustration about not being respected permeates all sections of society. Sennett recalls a party held after a cello competition to which the hostess had invited the losing players as a kindly gesture. At the party, the losers rebuffed all attempts to involve them in conversation. The "competition had paralysed them".
The fear of such individual failure haunts this beautifully crafted book. Sennett writes of the "devastating implications of rendering judgement on someone's future". Not surprisingly, he is uncomfortable with an education system of tests and exams because they draw attention to unequal ability. He indicts tests that presume to evaluate potential talent on the grounds that it represents not only an evaluation of a specific ability, but an assessment of the whole person. He is sceptical of the merits of meritocracy, fearing that it inevitably leads to resentment and envy, as well as representing a threat to social solidarity. Practices that highlight differences in personal ability, he believes, lead inevitably to the erosion of civic solidarity and community.
He offers no alternative to meritocracy, although he hints at the need to create institutions that avoid invidious comparisons. However, in a complex society, it is impossible not to compare. The institutionalisation of diversity represents an attempt to avoid comparisons that hurt. But in the end, the pretence of not comparing does not satisfy the craving for respect. The author understands this, as do the many middle-class parents who dislike the impact of exams on their children. So pervasive is their fear of failure that shielding children from the experience of disappointment is defined as good parenting. Indeed, the fear of failure is often interpreted as contributing to feelings of inadequacy among children. That is why in affluent, polite circles competition has acquired such negative connotations.
Unlike Pope Leo, whose concern with respect was driven by the threat of class conflict, Sennett concentrates on its psychological dimension. He writes of how, in the run-down Chicago neighbourhood where he spent his childhood, "inequality had translated into a doubt of the self". This shift in emphasis is crucial for making sense of the problem of respect today, when even those who are supposedly strong, or deemed highly talented, can no longer take for granted the respect of others.
In truth, respect under most forms of authority is relatively feeble. It is not underwritten by any robust system of cultural support. The problem is no longer simply how the strong go about respecting the weak: the strong or the talented find it difficult enough to express respect for themselves, never mind for the weak. The distinctive feature of the question of respect today is that it is, above all, a problem of how the elite feel about themselves. Perhaps, in the end, it is our very preoccupation with the politics of respect that we should really be worried about.
Frank Furedi is the author of Paranoid Parenting (Allen Lane)