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'It's cool to be kind, just don't demand respect'

David Birch, a specialist philosophy teacher with charity the Philosophy Foundation, writes: 

As someone who teaches philosophy in schools, the biggest hindrance to my lessons, besides blanket indifference, is pupils not giving each other the space in which to speak. Pupils interrupt and shout over each other, sigh to signal their boredom, tell each other to shut up or they deride an idea with laughter.

Indeed, this behaviour is not simply an obstacle to the lessons, it is antithetical to them. It is behaviour that betrays a phobia of listening or of being listened to, a phobia of being immersed in conversation.

I have been trained to eliminate all this by adopting the parlance of schools and insisting that in philosophy lessons my pupils “respect” one another. A tense or combative atmosphere is the problem and respect is the solution. That’s the idea, but I have never been fluent in the language of respect, and I wonder whether we would do better to jettison it, whether there are better words to hand, whether respect may actually be part of the problem rather than the solution.

To put it simply, when we tell pupils to respect each other we are telling them not to disrespect each other. To disrespect someone is to belittle them, to treat them as worthless, beneath you, of little importance.

Respect serves to maintain an equality of status and value. Though this may sound like an admirable aim, it is also a delicate and high stakes approach, for disrespect is a kind of theft, it is the loss of something, and the question then is: How do we recover what we have lost? If one pupil tells another to shut up, they have disrespected them, they have robbed them of their worth, and what often follows is retaliation and resentment; we are faced with a race to the bottom in which each pupil attempts to recover their worth by taking that of the other. “I shall maintain my value by diminishing yours” – this becomes the name of the game.

A similar situation can also play out for the teacher. The vexatious conditional is this: If we are not being respected, we are being disrespected. This formula effects a change of aspect in which we see mere recalcitrance as a personal affront or assault. Valorising respect creates an inverse relation between our status and our pupils’ poor behaviour. Disrespect is theft, forceful repossession is the answer; and this repossession can be particularly inimical when a teacher is involved. Because the teacher’s status is predicated on authority, it can only be repatriated with force. Dignified silence is not an option.

Silence, however, is an option for the pupil. Rather than retaliate, they may instead endure the ignominy. But what, then, can we do for them? Respect makes it harder for us to help other people. It safeguards pride, which is something that others can easily damage yet hardly repair.

An injury to your sense of worth sends you spiralling into self-doubt and self-judgement. The loss of pride is shame and shame is exile. It isolates us. A morality of respect implicitly seals us off from each other. Respect is an ideal buoyed upon the precarious surface of a shame culture. It makes everything personal and leaves nothing personable.

If someone feels disrespected, the cure is to restore their sense of worth. But if someone is hurt, the cure is something more like love; the sort of unremarkable love that our everyday lives are built upon, the kind that we barely register because it’s diffuse in the air we breathe. We often call this sort of love kindness, and it depends upon and sustains the idea of our mutual kindness. By telling pupils to be kind, we are emphasising that they are of the same kind. By telling them to be respectful, we are stressing that they are of equal value.

These two approaches may seem similar, but they are worlds apart. Kindness engenders solidarity; respect does not, because treating people as equals is a way of not treating them as intimates. And certainly, for philosophy lessons at least, solidarity is essential. One’s feelings about this, however, will be reflective more generally of one’s feelings about the proper relationship not just within, but with one’s class: Is it a relationship of tolerant and co-operative professionalism, or is it one of solidarity? Squeezing the question into a false but illuminating dichotomy: Should your pupils be more like clients or friends?

Kindness, of course, is pleasurable. It is something that we both like to give and like to receive. Because respect addresses equality rather than intimacy, it offers no particular pleasures. But telling pupils to be kind not only tells them how to treat one another, it suggests that there is something to be gotten from each other.

Kindness is one alternative to respect, and there are certainly others. Sometimes I feel it fitting to tell my pupils to be cool rather than kind. Respect is demanding (note that it would be absurd to demand kindness), and kindness doesn’t always hit the spot because not everyone is a source of pleasure.

Coolness maintains society without necessitating intimacy. To be cool is to be yourself without apology or force, without inhibition or domination. This is particularly apposite for philosophy lessons: compel others but don’t coerce them, influence but don’t indoctrinate.

Besides coolness, I am, at other times, quite taken with the 18th century philosopher Edmund Burke’s thought that civilisation depends upon the “spirit of a gentleman”. It feels quaint, but is there any clear reason why we should not do better to advocate gentleness in schools over respect?

Teenagers are already up to their necks in anxieties about status and worth. By using the language of respect we are sustaining a culture of shame. A paradigm shift is needed. To effect this shift we might start, quite simply, by experimenting with new words, trying them on for size. We might, for instance, start talking about gentleness, politeness, considerateness, kindness or coolness; any one, or all of these things, just not respect.

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