Elisée Reclus, the French Anarchist, wrote in 1894, "Isn't the loss of respect a quality par excellence of contemporary society?" He saw the refusal to show any respect for the establishment as a sign of hope for the future. He would never have made a leader writer for the Daily Telegraph.
Reclus was writing from one side of a divide in 19th Century radicalism. There were the reformers, who had a civilising mission, and the libertarians who felt that social improvement was merely a mask for the imposition of 'respectability', a bundle of middle class values, on an unruly and independent working class. Reclus saw disrespect as revolutionary, others were simply defenders of working class pleasures. One of the big battle lines was temperance, but though we shouldn't romanticise the Victorian working class, neither should we stereotype it. Whilst drink figured largely, so did Shakespeare and at a time when middle class theatre goers viewed his works with disdain.
What Reclus was tapping into was a far more raucous working class tradition of noisy and irreverent disrespect. Take this from the 18th Century, when the tentacles of respectability had not reached as deeply into society. In Harwich, in 1724 "... the Mayor and other members of the Corporation were assembled in the Town Hall to Commemorate His Majesty's Most happy accession to the Throne by drinking His Majesty's and other most Loyal Healths ..." Outside the window there appeared a mob of some 200 persons led by a fisherman, John Hart, with horns on his head. They were indulging in a tradition known as "rough music", making a horrible cacophony as a form of mockery. And here is the crowning glory. One of the Corporation reported that Hart came to the door "and made signs with his hands intimating that We might kiss his Arse". (From E P Thompson, Customs in Common)
I have quoted this in teaching often and sometimes I think that we miss the significance of what Hart was doing. He was not just involved in coarse mockery. He was saying, 'I am better than you, I am more intelligent than you, how do you handle that then'? And he was saying it in another language, confronting the façade of respectability and decency with vulgar ribaldry. He was brave too. The loyalist dullards had a brutal legal system on their side and, whilst their affront may be a testament to their stupidity, it made them dangerous.
This tradition hasn't completely gone away. Working in adult education I come across many latter day Harts. Ferociously intelligent people, often angry and always outspoken, they challenge, confront and subvert. And when someone points out in the middle of teaching, perfectly correctly, that you are talking utter bollocks, all you can do is roar with laughter and agree. Academically they excel, but do not always match that success in their subsequent careers. It is not surprising as this is just another of the subtle layers of class and status in Britain. In the main, the dullards are still in control and do not enjoy their dignified complacency disturbed by ruffians. Where they have given way, it is to the reformers who do not really know what to do when the unconventional refuse to be reformed. So where are the libertarians? Nowhere to be seen at the moment. One day, one day ...