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.
LRB 9 October 2003 | PDF Download