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What you want, baby I got. Book review. Respect: The Formation of Character in an Age of Inequality by Richard Sennett

Respect: The Formation of Character in an Age of Inequality,  Richard Sennett explores the relation between respect and inequality. It is, he says "an experiment. It's neither a book of practical policies for the welfare state nor a full-blown autobiography".

In 1946, when he was three years old, Richard Sennett moved with his mother into Cabrini Green - the notorious housing project in Chicago. The Sennetts were unusual tenants, to say the least. His mother Dorothy, an aspiring writer, had spent her youth in the turbulence of the radical politics of the Great Depression. His father was also a left-wing radical, who departed for the Spanish Civil War shortly after meeting his mother. Like many, he came home disillusioned by communism. The marriage broke up, and his father left when Richard was a few months old; they never met again.

Dorothy now found herself poor and down on her luck. She and her young son moved into Cabrini Green, "this mixed community of blacks, the white poor, the wounded and the deranged". To Dorothy, it was "like a beleaguered ship. Around it from early morning until far into the evening, there rose a sea of sound, voices screaming, laughing, wailing, shouting".

The Sennetts managed to survive and escape Cabrini some years later. His mother had begun a career that would eventually make her a distinguished social worker. Richard discovered early a prodigious talent for music. Tragically, at age 21, the tendons of his left hand tightened up and an operation to fix the problem went wrong. His brilliant career as a cellist was over. But, rescued again by his own talent and self-discipline, he went on to become an eminent sociologist and writer. A professor of sociology at the London School of Economics and New York University, his many books include the now classic The Hidden Injuries of Class, The Fall of Public Man and The Corrosion of Character, as well as a number of novels.

In Respect: The Formation of Character in an Age of Inequality, Sennett explores the relation between respect and inequality. It is, he says "an experiment. It's neither a book of practical policies for the welfare state nor a full-blown autobiography".

In vintage Sennett style, his "inquest" on respect is more like a meditation - on the nature of dependence, compassion, character, talent, and how these can create or undermine social respect. His scholarship extends across the disciplines of sociology, philosophy, literature, music, ethnography and psychoanalysis. It's a rich mix, full of interesting insights, none more so than when they derive from his experiences in Cabrini Green.

His central theme is that modern society lacks positive expressions of respect and recognition for others. The "master idea" is that by treating one another as equals, we affirm mutual respect. But, he asks, can we only respect people who are equal in strength and talent to ourselves? While some inequalities are arbitrary and can be ameliorated, others, such as differences in talent, are intractable. Modern society, he argues, generally fails to convey mutual regard and respect across these boundaries.

In modern society, respect is earned in three ways. The first is by the self-development of personal resources such as talent; the second is by caring for the self so that one is self sufficient, not a burden on others. The third way to earn respect is to give back to others. But inequality plays a particular and decisive role in shaping these three ways to earn respect. "The unusually talented person who makes full use of their abilities can serve as a social icon - but end up justifying inadequate provision of resources or respect for people who are not developing as fully. The celebration of self-sufficiency and fear of parasitism can serve as a way of denying the facts of social need; the compassion which lies behind the desire to giveback can be deformed by social conditions into pity for the weak, pity which the receiver experiences as contempt."

Sennett also returns to an old theme: should the provision of services to the poor be delivered by the detached, professional formality of public services, or do they need to be imbued by compassion and fellow feeling?

He recounts the ideological struggle between Jane Addams, Chicago's most notable social worker and the 1931 Nobel Peace Prize winner, and Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini, after whom Cabrini Green was named. Mother Cabrini, an Italian nun who emigrated to the US in 1889, became a champion of Chicago's poor. For her, the social worker served the poor only in order to serve God. But, although inspired by religious faith and compassion, her work was immensely practical.

Addams, on the other hand, believed equally passionately that social workers and social reformers had to break the mind-set of sentimental charity. She founded the famous Chicago "settlement house", where workers could eat, further their education and deal with local problems - a kind of self-directing welfare system. Under no circumstances was the will of the social worker to prevail over the democratic decision of the settlement house residents. For her, the role of the social worker was that of "practical adviser", like a modern business consultant.

For Mother Cabrini, Jane Addams's coolness was simply a kind of middle-class arrogance. For Jane Addams, Mother Cabrini's religious ecstasy was simply a way of sweeping worldly evils under the tent of religious faith.

Sennett weaves a complex intellectual web around this argument, and appears to come down on the Jane Addams end of the ideological divide: the value of formality and reserve in the provision of respectful welfare. But then he hesitates - his experience of the botched surgery on his hand "stands in the way".

He reflects that, when that happened, he wanted it to matter to the surgeon; he wanted him to respond as a full human being.

Most people, he observes, cannot accept the provision of care as a neutral function. He notes that Mother Cabrini inspired fierce affection in those she ministered to, and that her brand of compassionate care, delivered in the name of a shared religious faith, was able to bridge the inequality between her and the poor. "The religious language of sin applies equally to all human beings, it does not single out and stigmatise the poor." He notes, ruefully perhaps, that what most provoked Jane Addams about Mother Cabrini was the fact that she did not need the reserve that Addams herself so carefully cultivated.

At the end of the book, Sennett concludes that neither sheer goodwill nor institutional levelling can provide an answer to treating others with respect. He argues that the "tarnish" of the three modern codes of respect - make something of yourself, take care of yourself, help others - can be somewhat removed by honouring different practical achievements (what he calls "craftwork") rather than by privileging potential talent, by admitting the just claims of adult dependency and by permitting people to participate more actively in the conditions of their own care. But these practical policies cannot remove the fundamental discomfort which inequality arouses in modern society.

His own prescription is for a kind of equality founded on the psychology of autonomy. Rather than an equality of understanding, autonomy means accepting in others what one does not understand in them. In so doing, the fact of their autonomy is treated as equal to their own. By granting such autonomy, you dignify the weak or the outsider, which in turn strengthens your own character. "This is as much of a moral as I can find."

Throughout his life, Sennett has struggled to articulate and find a place for his life-long socialism in the post-communist, New Left world; to understand what notions of dependence, mutuality and public life can mean in the context of capitalism which is focused on individual competence, achievement and subjective experience. Occasionally, in newspaper articles, he takes a polemical swipe at Tony Blair's "flawed philosophy" of meritocracy - "Inequality is inherent in capitalism; there is no third way out of this brutal fact".

In Respect, he has examined this issue ina more personal way. But, for all its scholarly elegance, this book has an unfinished quality about it. It is as if Sennett has revisited Cabrini Green and his own vulnerabilities and come out blinking, less certain about the stern reserve of Jane Addams's brand of socialism, ambivalent, and maybe a little envious of the emotional certainties of Mother Cabrini. Hopefully, he is much too curious a person to leave it at that.

Originally published in The Irish Times.

Posted: 08 March 2003