Tuesday, May 31, 2005

With great respect.

“With great respect and love I welcome you with all my heart.” That was how my teacher used to open all his talks. Sometimes he would explain his reasons for using these words. I heard him speak around 1980 and I have no copy to draw on, so I will have to remember him and use my own reflections. It took nearly 12 years of meditation, therapy and study before I felt it within myself to open one of my seminars on psychotherapy practice with the same words, and on this subject matter. I am sad to say I would not feel enough integrity to do so today.
At the Oxford School of Psychotherapy and Counselling, my co-founder, Mary, and I decided to base our assessment of therapists on these capacities. I was just about giving myself a pass mark then. It is not easy to show great love and respect. Most versions of love are just versions of buying and selling, social contracts as Blair calls them. Most versions of respect are based on fear rather than love, deference rather than appreciation of the great value of another human being. It is difficult to reopen the heart into a world which closes people down into a premature consumerist psychosexuality, and pitches children into competitive examinations which grade and degrade at an ever younger age. Only in Blairy England would my step son be labelled a “wonky donkey” at six.
Suddenly Mr Blair wants to morally rearm us. He wants to bring back respect into civic life. I am happy to say that many of us writers have responded very quickly to this challenge, telling him where he is misguided and misguiding us. Jenni Russell writes in the Guardian that his New Labour has done little but nurture selfish individualism. She charts Blair’s move from the 1997 manifesto, “I want a Britain we all feel a part of, in whose future we all have a stake, in which what I want for my own children I want for yours,” to the much bleaker 2005 statement, “It is our social contract. We help you, you help yourself, you benefit and the country benefits….Self interest and national interest go together.” I am appalled by the poverty of the English usage here. But the message is clear enough. It is all buying and selling now. There is nothing here about respect. Human relations have shrunk to commerce and competition. I scratch your back so you will scratch mine. I compete at school to be best so I can help my country beat the French in selling arms, or whatever else we might still produce. No more “Ethical Foreign Policy”. We cannot afford that. This later Blair is less like a Rousseau, more like a Thomas Hobbes. We must all be tied together in Blair’s Leviathan, our National Identity cards tied around our necks like millstones, or our lives will be brutish, nasty, and short, like it is for the people we bombed in Iraq. Wasn’t the United Nations meant to end all that war and inequality? Did not all Nations unite after the Second World War to combat rogue states, which go to war without proper international agreement, universally accepted principles. You took away respect for the rule of International Law, Mr Blair, when you lost the argument in the Security Council, and started an unauthorised war, that the Secretary General of the United Nations has declared to be illegal. You took the world back to the law of the jungle, with power in the hands of the lion and the eagle, which the world now sees as vulture and jackal.
Jenni Russell suggests Blair may have changed his mind once again during the election. He has returned to “respect” after listening to us, she thinks. But a Channel Four documentary on New Labour chicanery during the election suggests Blair never met a real elector during the campaign. Every meeting was staged, it claimed. It seems more likely to me that Blair is just jumping on the latest moral panic about youngsters in hoodies as a way of promoting his agenda of increasing social control. Jenni ends her piece saying she is concerned that the respect agenda will be nothing more than a demand that the most alienated be required to show more respect to the rest of us. I think it is all part of softening us up to accept a New Labour Police State, where respect will be forcibly extracted from those who do not fit in. We will have nice Guantanamo orange jackets for all deviants, on parade as examples to the rest of us. I wonder if our new school head locally will feel obliged to ban the hoodies, which are currently official school uniform.
What is the first bill before the new parliament? Blair has chosen Identity cards; another step away from a free and respectful society. Meanwhile, he ignores MI5 suggesting we can downgrade the terror alert. Oh No, that does not fit with the politics of fear and oppression at all. One of the most important pillars of freedom in England is the right to walk the streets of any town without let or hindrance. Blair will rob us of that right, that expectation of respect as an English citizen. Only those able to show an identity card will be respectable then.
Blair’s next step is to put his most intransigent reactionary minister in charge of the committee to consider electoral reform, indicating just how happy he is with the country continuing to be run with the backing of one voter in five. Give respect to that man, he is a New Labour voter. He is worth four of the rest of us.
Do I digress? Respectfully returning to the main theme, I am immediately distracted by other politician’s misuse of the word. Many of them use this turn of phrase when interviewed on the Today Programme, though Jack Straw always comes to mind first for some reason. “With the greatest respect,” they begin their sentence; which is as sure an indicator as we are likely to be given that what follows will trash the previous statement made by questioner if not the questioner himself. If they are particularly rattled it may be shortened to the aggressive interruption,” With respect.” Perhaps this is to be the new policy; to declare one’s respect for the other whenever one is about to treat them disrespectfully, or contradict them utterly. Roughly translated it will read: “Please don’t take offence, but what you just said was a load of nonsense.”
Off the air waves among the under-class the word is also very fashionable. “Respect, man,” says the youngster wagging school to his mate. It is a word attached to street status, street credibility. To gaze at such a child, hooded or otherwise, might easily be construed as lack of respect, even a challenge. To restore it the boy will need to prove his machismo, sometimes violently. After all, Mr Blair set the example. Saddam Hussein’s intransigence before the Anglo Saxons was surely enough to justify a good hiding, even if his aggression consisted in no more than a defiant stare. Boys failing at school will look for other ways of earning respect from their peers, which usually means delinquency of some kind. In Blairy England, it is not possible to gain respect when not being successful. Now it is ASBO takes the hindmost. Someone is bringing out a book about the need to offer the ordinary person in the street respect, as a fundamental tenet of a just society. He wants to have respect as the common currency used to validate the unexceptional. The idea is that we don’t need to be the best, the richest, the most successful to be respected and respectable. That isn’t very New Labour. Under Blair the rich are ever more rewarded and the poor are getting poorer faster than they were under the Tories. In this culture of increasing indulgence of the rich, where poor children’s schools are handed to rich car dealers to run for huge cash incentives, what is gaining respect is the accumulation of wealth. Not surprisingly the poor but ambitious youngster goes out and takes what he wants backed by a gun. Is that not the example you set him in Iraq, Mr Blair?
Once upon a time I worked at a Centre for Human Relations. Our fundamental principle was an attitude of profound respect both for ourselves and for another human being. This is very different from following a pattern of good manners, though the members were among the most courteous people I have ever met. A highly respected American visiting teacher described us as “higher than average good-hearted”. He preferred coming to us teach for us than to his own institute, making him rather unpopular there on one occasion. I like the idea of “good-heartedness”. It sounds like the quality an Englishman or woman should possess. I am not sure you can teach it, but you can draw it out of people.
I found it more difficult to come to terms with the concept of respect. Fear was inextricably linked to respect for me then. At school in the fifties and sixties, I found the culture of deference utterly stifling. I will always remember being forced to answer to a name that is not my own, because a teacher demanded it of me, though I had told him and he understood it was not my name. Respect was what you had to offer your elders and betters. They had no obligation to show any kind of respect to you in return. In fact the reverse was the norm. The sadistic abuse of junior prep school was followed by a very positive experience of senior prep school, where the headmaster emanated respectfulness. But this in turn was replaced by degradation at a middle ranking public school. At first thoroughly cowed, I slowly found some courage to resist. The Institutional freedom of University felt like paradise. 1968 saw revolution in Europe. We reaped the rewards in the England of 1969.
I emerged from University with no respect for authorities, political or otherwise. Too many people in power had abused my trust, had failed to provide an example of good authority. Power and Authority were decoupled. It was from Mary, the psychotherapist and ex-nun, that I learned about respect. Everything about the way she interacted with you made you feel an accepted person, whatever your intellectual or social merits or emotional state. Perhaps this rubbed off on me a little. I think it rubbed off on all of us around her. This goes far beyond the remarkable intellectual persuasiveness of a Thatcher or the powerful seductive manipulations of a Blair. It is intimately connected with love. Without love it is perhaps impossible.
We must speak then of love. It is not an emotion, though it is always warm and sometimes burning. It is not a feeling, though many positive feelings flow out of love. It is not indiscriminate, for some people cannot be reached by love. My teacher said that there are eight kinds of people; seven can be influenced by love, the eighth, requires a stick. Love is the energy of the open heart in action. It is the greatest force in the universe. It powers our sexuality, our parenting, and our care for each other. It is not created by the mind or by the body. It comes from a higher place. It springs from experience of dimensions beyond the western egoic self. It is a connection to a wholeness that transcends individuality, yet is profoundly human and individual. Out of it flows respect for the other human being as another source of what one might call the divine.
Dear Mr Blair, would you not like to be respected again? Are you not trying to book your place in history? You already told us that history will judge you kindly. Yet one of the distressing things about respect is how hard it is to regain after you have lost it. We were so ready to take you and your “pretty straight guys” to our hearts. But you weren’t a straight guy. You lied and lied and lied. There are Tories still out there who want the curriculum refilled with tales of the British Empire, of when the Englishman commanded respect all over the world, just by being English. I suspect you want to be up there with those old Imperial heroes, who went out and fought heroically for King and country, painting the globe red. But you sent our troops out to fight, not for the good of all, or even for justice for the poor, but for George W. Bush and his greedy American Empire, and all on a great big lie.
Many ordinary little men have held power, Mr Blair. But to have true authority you need to have trust and respect from people. You have squandered that trust and that respect.
No, we won’t pass on from Iraq, as you keep demanding. It was a high crime.
No, it is not simply a matter of disagreement. You deliberately misled us all.
No, we don’t believe in your integrity. You lied and lied and lied.
We want you to understand that you have betrayed us shamefully. Do not wait for the International Court to shame us all. The best you can do as our prime minister now is respectfully retire.