Respect and Respectability

‘It’s all about respect,’ says retired Major-General John Cantwell in the Sydney Morning Herald, before slagging off at various Australian Defence Ministers he has known.  In the case of the current one, Stephen Smith, it’s because he has ‘no respect for those who chose to serve in uniform for their country’.  Meanwhile Bob Katter’s gay half-brother complains that a political ad shows ‘disrespect’ to the homosexual community.

What is this thing called Respect?  When did a perceived lack of Respect become a rod with which to beat up 2 politicians at opposite ends of the political spectrum?  And when did Respect begin to sound like something in the Sopranos, or a bikie’s funeral oration?  Search for ‘Respect’ on Twitter, and you find yourself in the world of rappers and bad spelling.

I think what we are talking about is a new manifestation of the idea of Honour.  In these days of clashing civilizations, Honor (now spelt the American way) seems to be inextricably linked to the ‘honor killing’ of wives and daughters.

But Honour was for centuries associated with Europe.  Elite men fought duels to defend their honour and the honour of their [sic] womenfolk.  Even Jane Austen alludes to such a duel in Sense and Sensibility as a ‘fancied necessity’.

In The Duel in European History (1986), V.G. Kiernan argues that the code of honour developed in feudal times, before the establishment of the rule of law, but replacing (and limiting) earlier clan-based vendetta.  It belonged to an oral culture – ‘My word is my bond’ – and was associated with a strutting masculinity, a touchiness about reputation, a concern to ‘give as good as you get’, not to back down or compromise, and to defend your honour with physical force.  It came with a culture of male bonding rituals that have, at least in the past, been connected to fagging or bastardization or other ways of initiating young males into the pack.

Michael Ignatieff, in The Warrior’s Honor (1998), explores its role in the ethnic conflicts of the Balkans and the Middle East in the 1990s.  A point to emphasise is that – as a strategy for beating ploughboys into swordsmen – these male bonding rituals are effective, but they may leave damaged men (and certainly women) in their wake.

Eugene Onegin and Vladimir Lensky's duel

The most lethal manifestation of the code of honour was the duel, which was still important in the early 19th century.   An American Vice President, Aaron Burr, killed a former Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, in 1804.  In England, Lord Castlereagh, Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, wounded George Canning, the Foreign Secretary, in September 1809, bringing about the fall of the government.

Dueling was illegal – but for the privileged classes, there are always ways around the law: the literal meaning of ‘privilege’ is ‘private law’.  However as the 19th century progressed, duelling fell out of favour.  It had its origins in an aristocratic, feudal past, and was increasingly at odds with middle class society that valued Respectability, rather than its swaggering counterpart, Respect.

However it survived in the army.

Dueling came to Australia with the New South Wales Corps.  John Macarthur fought 3 duels, 2 against fellow officers, including one in which he nearly killed his commanding officer, William Paterson.  Neither man was an aristocrat – Macarthur’s father was a draper, Paterson’s a gardener – but both of them had spent years absorbing the culture of the army.  As officers they understood its hierarchies, were easily offended by words spoken in haste, and shared a prickly sensitivity towards civilians and outsiders.

Less than a decade after that duel, as a retired officer Macarthur played an important role in the army mutiny that overthrew the NSW Governor, William Bligh. The potential for a clash of military and civilian cultures has been around for a long time.

Australians, who mostly despise their politicians, usually quote with approval Oliver Cromwell’s words, as he closed down the English Parliament in 1648:

You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately … Depart, I say; and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!

There’s no doubt Cromwell had a nice turn of phrase, and we have all felt that way as one time or another – but the consequence of his actions was to introduce martial law and martial rule.

With the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, England rejected the idea of a standing army.  As an island nation, Britain relied much more on its navy for defence, while its army was useful only for unpopular foreign adventures or to quell rebellion at home.

The same could probably be said for another nation ‘girt by sea’.

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