'No one wants to go back to the days where status demanded obedience and no one dared question authority.But have we gone too far in the other direction?'

A little respect

Why would anyone want to be a teacher, policeman or politician when today's society thrives on tearing them from their pedestals of power?

Who is admired? Deference is dead and those in authority no longer command the respect they once did. A recent YouGov poll asked people to name their heroes. They came up with a surprising list, because not one of their chosen role models commands any official position of power or leadership.
There was Jane Tomlinson, that remarkable 42- year-old athlete who, between crippling bouts of chemotherapy for an incurable breast cancer, has completed the full Iron Man (4km swim, 180km bike ride and marathon all in 17 hours) and a bike ride right across America, raising £160,000 for charity and earning a well-deserved MBE for her fortitude. Well, there is a good old-fashioned heroine, straight out of the old storybooks for girls.
There was David Attenborough, a hero of a very different kind, the great naturalist who has opened our eyes to wonders of the world. Now he warns the world that our time is up unless we stop burning up the globe with our misuse of energy.
Jamie Oliver was up there too, so much more than a chef now he has championed the cause of healthy school dinners. His work in taking in no-hope kids and turning them into master chefs is another heart-warming triumph, showing what can be done if only someone gives them a chance in life.
And then there is Richard Branson. Worth £6bn, he has just pledged £3bn to help fight global warming. His attitude could hardly be more different to Michael O'Leary, the eco-villain of Ryanair who puts outs ads defying global warming fears. Branson has long been the person young people interested in business most want to imitate.
But this list names no politicians, soldiers, clergy or statesmen. No leaders in the traditional sense, who would have graced the top of the respect league a couple of generations ago. Instead, heart-warmingly, when another poll recently asked young people who they most admired, they overwhelmingly chose their mothers. Now that will have come as a surprise secret in many a family with teenagers. But there is less and less respect for our leaders. Why? It's hard to know. Certainly politics is far cleaner than it used to be. Lloyd George and Harold Wilson sold honours by the bundle. There is much more transparency about money in politics than there was a few decades ago. It is quite recent that every MP must declare all outside earnings so we can see who is paid what by commercial interests.
Oddly, it seems to be this transparency that has itself caused worse mistrust. The more they reveal, the more suspicious the people have become. The newspapers are far more vicious in pursuing what would have been regarded as unimportant peccadilloes a while back. The more the press harasses and reveals, the more the public believe there must be hidden dirt lurking. What an irony that the cleanest political system in our history (and possibly in the world) is now viewed with utter mistrust and contempt by its voters.
Once lost, is there any way to win back respect? Certainly both Gordon Grown and David Cameron are bidding to restore faith in politics if they take over. Is it too late? People are not so eager to step forward to take up a political career in the brutal spotlight where they will be ripped apart, every aspect of their life and their family life exposed. There is a danger that if we go on treating every politician as a scoundrel, the only people who will step up for election will be scoundrels.
People are already shunning all kinds of top public roles, as they come under a barrage of criticism. Large numbers of head teacher jobs are vacant as no one can face the burden of responsibility without the respect that role is due. Who wants to put themselves in the daily firing line from pupils and parents? See how Chief Constables now come under constant attack in the press. Doctors in the abstract may top the list of respected professions, but they find themselves under frequent attack from demanding patients second-guessing their expert knowledge with stuff off the internet.
No one wants to go back to the forelock-tugging days of empty respect, where status demanded obedience and no one dared question authority out of fear. But have we gone too far in the other direction? General class deference was terrible, but to defer to those who know better than us about their particular profession is right and proper. How can the genie of respect be put back in the bottle now it has escaped?
It should begin with the press restraining its daily assault and abuse on anyone and everyone it can pull down and damage. But for as long as people go on buying the worst offenders, such as the Daily Mail, with its campaign of hatred against everyone and everything, then what hope? It would help if many more outsiders came into schools and spent time talking about their occupations, so pupils could understand what it takes to learn a skill and a profession. Seeing senior professionals showing respect to the professionalism of teachers would help remind pupils that they are taught by worthwhile, well-educated, skilled people.
But remember this: respect is two-way traffic. Young people who themselves are treated with contempt will not grow up showing respect to others. They are all lumped together as 'hoodies' even though the great majority of them are growing, up as decent citizens, ever more of them doing well and going on to further education. And they do deserve respect for their successes too.

POLLY TOYNBEE [Respected writer and broadcaster on social issues. Polly is also a columnist for The Guardian]

[CANDIS March 2007]

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