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Respect: The formation of character in an age of inequality
Sennett’s work has two great themes and both of them come together in this book. One looks at how people bring with them into their social lives all sorts of secret doubts and painful questions to do with pride, love for others and self-worth. The other has to do with the importance of formality, structure, authority in the social arena – what Sennett calls, in his marvellous The Fall of Public Man, “the reality and worth of impersonal life”.
Society cannot function, Sennett considers, without a certain classicism of demeanour. Institutions and rituals allow people to interact as properly social beings, leaving the endless imbroglios of their more intimate selves at home. In the current book, the big question is about how to “cross the boundaries of inequality with mutual respect”; Sennett is unimpressed with answers that have to do with spontaneity and kindness, which he terms “social jazz”. His own answer has as much to do with acting as with charitable impulse. Respect, in some sense, has to be performed.