Respectfully Yours

Respectfully Yours

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 understoo


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.

This is not to say that Sennett is arguing for inequality. His is, however, a rather pessimistic take on how much equality can ever be constructed. Having lived for some time as a child in the Cabrini-Green public housing project in Chicago, with his leftist social-worker single mother, he is acutely aware of the advantages that allowed him to escape. He is critical of meritocracy, of equal-opportunity liberal ideals, because of the unavoidably unequal distribution of talent. There may be innumerable forms of talent and intelligence, but it is hard to imagine a society in which some talents are not more valued than others. Sennett points out that the twentieth-century obsession with testing “potential” or “intelligence” has been destructive, and that being told one is lacking in potential is worse than being labeled an “underachiever.” Moreover, meritocracy threatens solidarity and can discomfort winners, who want acceptance, as well as losers. Variation in beauty, personality, ambition and many intangibles may always produce inequalities that are tenacious if not inescapable, so it makes sense to follow Sennett in considering how respect can be practiced regardless of these inequalities.

Yet I wonder if respect and equality can be so detached as Sennett wants to argue, or if respect is even as important as equality. I think of the slogan of the Harvard clerical workers on strike a decade ago, “You can’t eat prestige.” A hundred and fifty years ago privileged women were treated with great respect–or at least everyone believed it to be respect–but many would have preferred to trade in that respect for some rights. In an era when CEOs can earn a hundred times what their workers earn, where workers increasingly have no benefits or job security, is mutual respect really possible?


Sennett has thought deeply about the erosion of the dignity of labor. Respect was originally planned as a companion volume to his 1998 The Corrosion of Character, which examined the impact of the new “casualization” of employment on character–loss of security, of an expectation of progress in a career, of loyalty to a firm or to co-workers. Respect was to be about welfare, and in part it is. Sennett sketches out a theory that, just as the new “flexible” production processes have got rid of traditional pyramidal bureaucratic structure, with layers of management getting smaller as they get higher, and replaced it with a “disk” structure, with top management having more direct supervisory access to the mass of bottom-line workers, so welfare administration has been transformed. The “disk” imagery comes from laser disc players where a single (managerial) beam can touch down directly and exactly at any point on the shop floor, so to speak. But the analysis and the metaphor both fail to describe what’s been happening with welfare. I agree entirely that the recent successful conservative campaigns against welfare share roots with the transformation of production: globalization, the search for ever cheaper labor and the power of CEOs in running these huge corporate economies. The similar roots have not, however, produced the same restructuring patterns.

The crises of welfare states, most advanced in the United States, stem in large part from huge corporate tax cuts and a regressive revision of tax codes; from relentless pressure forcing women into the labor force, particularly nonelite women, who can get only the lowest-paying jobs; from the double day’s work so many women do, which then jacks up resentment toward those on welfare who don’t have to “work.” (This definition of “work” as only that which earns wages is part of a disrespect for domestic labor, childrearing and the women who do it, as Sennett would absolutely agree. And besides, most welfare recipients do work for wages and always have, because no one can live on welfare stipends.) Many factors have contributed to the assault on welfare, but restructured terms of management and labor are not among them.

Yet the question of respect among those who receive welfare is fundamental. Sennett reminds us that, historically, some of those most committed to helping the poor, even some of the most generous, have given alms at the price of respect. He offers a provocative contrast between two Chicago promoters of welfare: Jane Addams, leftist social reformer, war resister and feminist, who tried to do community organizing through Hull House in Chicago, and Mother Cabrini, an Italian-American nun who, in ministering to the poor, offered God’s love in return for submission. Once again Sennett explores the counterintuitive–the possibility that Cabrini more easily avoided condescension toward those she sought to help because “those who cooperated in the name of a shared religion had a resource to bridge this ambiguous divide between self and other: service to a higher power.” And once again, I’m not sure that the historical evidence would support this claim.

Sennett is right that trying to help the less fortunate is hard to accomplish without disrespect, a problem of which Addams was acutely aware, if unable to surmount. One proposed solution to the problem underlay modern welfare states: People who need help should be able to get that help as a matter of right, without having to prostrate themselves, to prove their poverty, to meet external moral standards or to surrender their privacy. We do indeed have some welfare programs that are entitlements, like Social Security old age insurance, but these are no longer called “welfare.” That (now-pejorative) term is applied only to forms of aid that are the opposite of rights–aid offered to those who need to prove themselves “deserving” through morals tests as well as means tests. Such proponents of a guaranteed annual income program as European supporters of basic income grants would solve this problem by eliminating supervision and means testing entirely, as well as different programs of aid for different constituencies–the disabled, the elderly, children, etc.–instead providing a flat rate of support for everyone. The wealthier would have these grants taxed away from them.

But while such a program would be excellent for the vast majority, there are some for whom it would not be adequate, and the author of The Hidden Injuries of Class knows this well. Cash transfers will not solve the problems of runaway kids, the mentally ill, violent men, sexually abused children, battered women and alcoholics, not to mention the blind, the chronically ill, the paralyzed. Although a society of greater social justice might well diminish these problems, they are unlikely to disappear entirely. People need kinds of help that require connection with others. And some of this help cannot be provided by friends and relatives. It requires professionals. And these professionals must be able to practice respect, they must be trained and skilled in offering respect.

This is where Sennett stops. I wish he had continued, because social-work intellectuals have devoted considerable thought to the problem, and we can learn from them. This is what the theory and technique of casework at their best are about: integrating material support, professional guidance or therapy, and respect. Sennett aptly calls this a “democratic form of dependency.” The project has mostly failed, and that fact has given social work a bad reputation among New Left intellectuals like Sennett, but to give up on it is a privilege of the less needy. I have contributed to the critique of social work myself, but I also resent the demonization of this profession that attracts only those foolish enough to want to help. (Do I need to remind readers of the working conditions and wages of social work?)

Casework involves breaching the line between the public and the private, and Sennett is right that this may be damaging to self-respect. But maintaining this line is part of what makes children and women vulnerable to abuse, what allows private clubs to exclude blacks, etc. One attempt to sketch out a democratic social work came from Charlotte Towle, an underrecognized social-work leader of the 1930s and ’40s. Trying to bring together psychiatric social-work theory, New Deal welfare policy and the left-wing “rank-and-file movement” among social workers, Towle published the visionary Common Human Needs in 1945. She entirely rejected the charge that giving people too much help would make them dependent. Far from worrying that public support would weaken willpower and the work ethic, she argued rather that without a welfare state a person “is doomed to continue in the psychological state of childhood, anxiously dependent…insecure, and unfree to move courageously.” Towle preferred the language of interdependence and “self-dependence” to the more ideological notion of independence, something I know Sennett would approve. She argued for “sound individualization in a program based on legal right.” Her message to caseworkers was, “No matter how unusual an individual’s behavior may seem to us it has its rational foundation, its logic. His behavior, like ours, is serving him some useful purpose in the maintenance of a kind of equilibrium”–an admonition to respect, and one that expresses Sennett’s view that respect means accepting the inability to understand another person completely. (Towle became an early McCarthy victim, her specific crime having been a reference to the progress of the “socialized state,” yet another example of a line of thinking and policy crushed by the cold war.)

Sennett’s and Towle’s respectful welfare state is not going to happen anytime soon, and may seem utopian to the point of frivolity in the context of 2003. And yet precisely in such terrible times, dreams of a good society become uniquely valuable. Sennett’s is a thoughtful, unsentimental meditation on an aspect of a good society too often overlooked.

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