Richard Sennett is best known in the United States for his 1972 book (written with Jonathan Cobb), The Hidden Injuries of Class. That study of white working-class men, how they understood their subordinate class status, how they “internalized” and compensated for their class position, was extremely influential. The prolific Sennett’s newest book, Respect, follows directly in that line of inquiry, exploring a problem he sees as endemic in our society: the scarcity of respect for others. “Lack of respect, though less aggressive than an outright insult, can take an equally wounding form. No insult is offered another person, but…he or she is not seen–as a full human being whose presence matters.” The solution? Sennett doesn’t trade in pieties or simplistic thinking. His strength is precisely in exposing the contradictions, even dilemmas, involved in improving the human condition.
Sennett is one in a minority of humanistic sociologists in the United States–in fact, he has never conformed to any academic discipline (and I mean that as a compliment). Respect is unconventional in form as well as content. In it Sennett combines a bit of memoir with his meditation on society, with mixed success: Sometimes the two connect and sometimes they don’t. He also combines some reflections on his experience as a musician–a cellist–also with mixed success, also because the music sometimes connects to the social theory and sometimes doesn’t. But the musical analogies are always fascinating, and they illuminate as much about listening as about playing.
Respect as Performance
One might pick up this book expecting Sennett to see disrespect as another of the hidden injuries of class, or of other forms of inequality in power and privilege, but his argument is more interesting and quite counterintuitive to the left-of-center reader: that it might sometimes be easier to structure and practice respect across lines of inequality than among equals. Leftists, who are often radical egalitarians, have thought and hoped that interpersonal respect would flourish like a wildflower, naturally and spontaneously, from the ground of equality. But they are wrong, in several ways. First, respect is a practice that requires training, repetition, even skill. Like the craft of interviewing, one must learn and perform it. To do interviewing well, Sennett explains, you can’t be mechanical or rote, but you can’t treat it as a conversation among friends either; it requires accepting the interviewee as a subject whose ideas and responses are of great interest even though one can never entirely comprehend them. When done well, respect often involves rituals and a certain formality, which might include everything from terms of address (and I do wish the telephone salespeople would call me Ms. Gordon instead of Linda) to syntax to listening. Yet it cannot be reduced to a set of rules, because it must be responsive to context and the emotional content of interaction. Respect requires using one’s own experience to understand others but without assuming that their reactions are the same as one’s own. This sounds easy, but it is in fact extremely difficult. As Sennett astutely remarks, in “everyday life we are constantly confusing self and other…. It is by projection that we make a kind of elemental contact with others.” Sennett’s musical examples of respect work splendidly here, as he points out that ensembles and orchestras require not only intense listening to other players but also a constant give and take of volume, dynamics and tone that let all the instruments be heard in the proportions that provide the desired musical interpretation.
Respect Among Unequals
Sennett also argues that respect is often better expressed among unequals, and turns to anthropology for supporting examples. In many simpler societies with high levels of social cohesion, exchange is never negotiated as an equal give and take. The Trobriand Islanders described by Bronislaw Malinowski gave and received gifts frequently, leaving the recipients indebted until there was an occasion for them to give, thereby requiring an ongoing relationship. An exchange of exact equivalents, the usual practice in a formal market, creates no relationship precisely because all parties are quits with each other. In premodern societies, exchanges between lord and peasant were often highly ritualized, the lord enacting gestures of respect even as he received tribute from his subjects.