The Disrespect Agenda or How the Wrong Kind of Niceness is Making us Weak and Unhappy

May 15, 2008

Respect is one of the buzzwords in contemporary culture. Tony Blair said in May 2005 that he wanted to create a "culture of respect". There are regular calls from all sides for respect to be shown for human rights, animal rights and minority groups of all kinds.

In his pungent and passionate polemic, retired academic Lincoln Allison launches a broadside against all this as sentimental twaddle. Calls for respect, he says, represent "a deep, false and potentially disastrous humanism", the desire of a Government devoid of ideas to paper over society's cracks and to stifle free speech.

Instead, he argues the case for disrespect in all areas of society. He rejects the biblical commandment "Honour thy father and thy mother" and quotes with approval Philip Larkin's "They fuck you up, your mum and dad". He excoriates the modern education system and calls for disrespect for pupils ("they should be freed from the notion that they are of any value or importance"), parents ("stupid, ignorant and anti-intellectual") and educational administrators and researchers. He rejects the idea of automatic respect for art and artists.

Above all he celebrates the idea of "misrule" - "in the Land of Misrule we share the exhilaration of knowing that nothing should be respected". One of his prime examples of "misrule" is football hooliganism: "Mostly it is naughtiness ... but it is fun." The Belgians, French, Swedes and Swiss who have regularly had their heads kicked in by English football hooligans might not take so indulgent a view.

Allison cites as his ideal world late Hanoverian Britain, "the golden age of disrespect", which he characterises as an era of greater honesty, concern for liberty and recourse to reason than subsequent periods. However, he leads with his chin when he says: "What academic debate needs - if it is to be worth anything - is a good deal less respect and much more of the pure, fresh ordure of scorn."

Well, here it comes. It is hard to imagine anything more wrong-headed and ill-informed than this squib. The depiction of the Hanoverian Age is resolutely one-dimensional: it may have been the "golden age of disrespect" but it was also the golden age of binge drinking, of endemic political corruption and of bare-knuckle prize-fighting, bear-baiting and public executions.

As the social historian Harold Perkin wrote: "Between 1780 and 1850 the English ceased to be one of the most aggressive, brutal, rowdy, outspoken, riotous, cruel and bloodthirsty nations in the world and became one of the most inhibited, polite, orderly, tender-minded, prudish and hypocritical." This transformation was the result of the growth of the factory system that demanded punctuality, the development of the police service, a general improvement in the quality of life, the socialising effects of school and Sunday school, of chapel, trade unions and adult education movements, and above all the doctrine of respectability, which combined self-respect with respect for others.

This created a structured, ordered society that prevailed until the 1960s when its foundations began to be eroded. Allison appears not to have noticed that his disrespect agenda has been in operation since then and is manifested today in the stories of gangs of drunken teenagers kicking innocent householders to death, ambulance workers and firefighters being stoned as they go about their work, teachers being attacked in classrooms and doctors and nurses assaulted in surgeries and in A&E departments. Perhaps it is time for a reversion not to Hanoverian but to Victorian values.

The Disrespect Agenda or How the Wrong Kind of Niceness is Making us Weak and Unhappy

By Lincoln Allison
Social Affairs Unit
120pp, £10.00
ISBN 9781904863304
Published 1 March 2008

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