Diss the policies which show disrespect

20th May 2005 at 01:00
As anyone watching the election night interview between Jeremy Paxman and George Galloway will have observed, respect is politically and socially problematic. The newly-elected MP for Bethnal Green coerced his interrogator into congratulating him, by threatening to walk out. The disdain on Jeremy Paxman's face told even the most casual of viewers that while Galloway may have won the seat in the name of Respect he had not earned it from Jeremy Paxman.

That is the dilemma facing anyone wishing to make the ideal of "respect" a cornerstone of the new legislative cycle - you cannot induce respect through the rule of law. Much has been made in the past week about the end of deference as if in some way respect and deference were synonyms. (It would be interesting to know if BBC interviewers in the Fifties actually respected the politicians they deferred to or whether they were simply polite.) Though there is a connection between courtesy and respect, we tend not to be rude to those we hold in high esteem. The wit and satire of Oscar Wilde depended on the ironic distance between what we say and what we mean in polite society. Edith Wharton, a very different writer, exposed a callous cruelty beneath the veneer of respectability in her society. Few characters who demand deference in her novels command the reader's respect.

Both these writers explored the limitations of looking at the outward trappings of civility. Yet much of the commentary of the past couple of weeks has considered only the surface features of disrespect - hoodies and baseball caps to name but two. The idea that removing headgear will somehow produce a quiescent teenager is as mistaken as believing that a quirk of birth should alter the way an individual is treated.

Respect, as any teacher knows, is a much more illusive quality. While some teachers have a natural presence and others keep order effortlessly neither attribute guarantees it; nor does considerable knowledge, though each of these can contribute in their way. Observe good teachers in action, however, or canvas pupils for their opinions, and a common element emerges.

Respect is earned, in part, by showing it. This is not the same as befriending or being eager to please the pupils. It is somehow, through action and demeanour, demonstrating a belief and confidence in all children, suggesting that they have worth and value.

The teacher who can say, with honesty and conviction, to a challenging pupil, "Have I ever been rude to you?" is on much firmer ground than one who, however provoked, cannot. Such a relationship does not come overnight, is often hard to achieve and certainly does not fit a political timetable.

The problem with politicians is that they have to be seen to be doing something and legislation is the most visible form of activity.

It remains to be seen what measures this Government will take to create the respectful society we would all wish to live in. I fear they will be more of the Bluewater Centre variety rather than those engendered by the best teachers. For if they were serious about respect ministers might have to question their policy agenda: the maintenance of league tables, which write off whole communities; the retention of grammar schools and the reinstatement of a vocational academic divide which makes so many pupils feel second rate; the punitive testing structure which labels too many children as failures. Each of these devalues the worth of young people.

Politicians need to earn respect before they can legislate for it.

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