My parents and grandparents went to some lengths to instil in me the importance of respectability. This concept was one I struggled to understand when I was young and then realised wasn’t important as I got older. What I did learn was that it was important to my older family and the older generation and discovered through my friends that our generation didn’t give respectability any real value. So what I learned was how to play the game of respectability to not upset older people.
I think my main objection to respectability was that it was so complicated and seemed to lack a coherence or a logically related set of premises, it seemed like a fairly random set of rules and thus required commitment to learn. Really respectability had been important for generations, bound up with the issue of class that bound society together for a long time. Respectability is about showing that you have learned this very complex set of rules. Hence it is showing that you have been educated. This was an important badge of respectability during a period when a large chunk of society didn’t receive any formal education. The older generation are very impressed when our generation wave around degrees or have letters after our names, when my generation isn’t at all.
Much of these complex rules were not just about respectability and education but also about our culture and it’s traditions. I think the older generation have been fearful of the way my generation unpicked all the traditions and worked out which ones had sense or useful purpose to them and which were remnants of things that had once been useful but no more. I think they feared we would lose our culture and sense of who we were.
I kind of get that fear, but the rules are so harsh that they hold a culture bound to arbitrary rules that actually inhibit cultural growth. What I mean is that you can spend so much time and energy following the rules that you lack the time to realise why something is valuable.
To illustrate this idea by example. As a child I was taken to a music concert, great, but this involved such things as dressing in uncomfortable clothes that I wasn’t comfortable wearing, sitting still and receiving instructions on how to appear I was appreciating the music. So, being an anxious child, I felt obliged to follow all these bizarre rules to keep my parents and grandparents happy, so much so that i didn’t get to enjoy the music! It was only later that I was able to relax and open my ears and really start to appreciate what the musicians were doing. So I now look down on anyone who suggests there should be ‘dress codes’ at musical concerts, if you like dressing up, great, if it’s not your thing, that is just as cool. I personally, make a point of not dressing up at all as all music should be accessible to everyone, whatever helps you open your ears is what is of paramount importance.
The other issue my cohort had when growing up was that we realised that we were growing up in rural Wales. We could look back on our families tilling the land for generation after generation and for me that meant I was one whole generation away from the land and that tradition.My cohort have been realising that in European terms our local culture hadn’t undergone the rapid changes experienced by those who went to the large towns and cities, that we also needed to learn the new etiquette of a more globalised world, especially those of us who had lost the farming tradition.
For my generation the world isn’t one of knowing the arcane rules of respectability. Perhaps we are more interested in what things are valuable and useful and disparage those things which aren’t. In a way all this is is just a completely new set of rules of respectability, with the difference in that the rules relate to the world we know rather than old traditions.
We live in rapidly changing times. Rural Wales was late in awakening to industrialisation, so when my parents generation realised that they weren’t to continue the agricultural tradition, Europe was beginning to struggle with post industrialisation, we had missed out perhaps almost entirely on the industrial era, apart from tractors replacing horses. Tractors replacing horses was surely progress, saving so much time and not needing to grow crops to feed the horses. However these very changes meant that fewer people were needed to work the farm. Many farms became one or two man operations and the rest of the family had to go and find work elsewhere, which almost invariably meant moving away.
Until that is, broadband came, and the transport network got so congested that staying at home for administrative jobs started to become the best option. Furthermore the beginnings of the effects of climate change are starting to have real unignorable impacts and the era of cheap oil and indeed it’s tractors is coming to an end. Perhaps I am witnessing the end of that flight to cities to find work and all in just one generation.
Welsh farmers have largely always looked down their noses at all the city people, sitting in offices not producing very much of any real use. They are largely right of course. Whilst they have been spending all their days proudly producing food for people to eat. After all owning land was the height of respectability. European history has always been about the those at top of society who own the land.
The thing is anyone can farm. Humanity for most of history has been made up of farmers. It was only during the industrial period when modern conveniences enabled rises in living standards that land, farmland, for a time lost it’s value, enabling a generation of farmers to finally own their own land. It can be viewed that they got lucky to have ended up with the the thing that meant respectability to the very last generation that valued respectability.
I grew up with the concept of ‘look smart and wear a collar and tie’. The dual meaning of smart of being educated and dressing well, is perhaps no accident as both meanings are really about respectability. There is some evidence of this word ‘smart’ flipping in meaning as the meaning of respectability changes. We now talk about being ‘street smart’ and making smart decisions. These newer meanings of smart are not about old respectability but more about being a useful individual and contributing to rather than exploiting society.
The great irony for me growing up of wearing of ties is that the people who wore ties all the time were and still are the big business executives and politicians who made decisions for their personal gain and failed to appreciate what the communities they effected needed. It seems to me that the wearing of a tie is a mark of the disrespectful. I grew up during the Miner’s strike, and the baddies were all wearing suits. I only wear them when etiquette and tradition demands though.
Anyone who analysis society realises that the things that respectability valued, such as land or education are largely acquired by luck or an odious obsession with garnering the facets of respectability through acting in a disrespectful way, such as the acquisition of land to be a rentier, rather than actively working the land. Somewhat paradoxically respectability regards those who are respectable by luck of being in the right family in the right place much more highly, rather than those who have acquired respectability by behaving disrespectfully by the new generations definition. Perhaps because the mistakes of the previous generations of the powerful were more innocent and on a smaller scale than those made by those in power today.
So, whilst my generation watch as the old respectability does, we are witnessing the rise of a new one where what is regarded as respectable has flipped and is utterly different and instead values being true to yourself and your community, rather than learning the rules to be someone different and of entering a sub-community. Where diversity and difference is at last valued and conformity isn’t. The interesting question now is whether or not respectability will flip again in a new direction with the next generation or whether we stop valuing people’s acquired traits at all. I’m sure if either of these two directions is more worthy than the other.