There are two kinds of respect; self-respect, and the desire to be respected by others. As psychologist Nathaniel Branden has said: “There is overwhelming evidence that the higher the level of self-esteem, the more likely one will be to treat others with respect, kindness, and generosity.” In other words, self-respecting people are far less likely to commit crimes. The idea of self-respect has been bastardized these days, something which parents think they can instill in children by continual, unconditional encouragement and cheerleading. In fact, self-respect has to be earned by overcoming obstacles. But respectability is quite a different matter.
Concern for what others think, what is now bastardized as “image” was better referred to as “respectability” back in the day before social media made everyone their own publicist. Like dead white men, for whom respectability mattered, this term is now one of disparagement, connoting a wooden concern with conformity. Attacks on the idea of respectability have been going on a long time, beginning with one of the Greatest Dead White Men – Charles Dickens, who attacked the veneer of respectability often. In Our Mutual Friend, the villain is, wait for it, a schoolteacher, Bradley Headstone, and his up-from-nothing protégé, Charley Hexam, who is desperately seeking a respectable life. (The heroes of this novel are underemployed lawyers, showing that even the Greatest of Dead White Men can get it quite wrong, as no good has ever come from a lawyer with too much time on his hands.) The attack on respectability, and associated conformity, has been non-stop since Dickens, culminating in the soulless character of Peter Keating in the Great American novel, The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand.
Yet the drive towards respectability, at its best, and the willingness to conform to social standards, when they are reasonable, is what keeps communities safe and crime free. One might feel like slapping one’s wife or kids, but if you know that action will become public, and your community will shame you for it, you are more likely to restrain yourself until that passion has passed. Yes, concern with what others think can lead to mindless conformity, but it’s also a restraint on the worst actions of a communities’ members.
As thought leaders have chipped away at the idea for generations, Americans don’t seem too concerned with respectability, as witnessed by the proliferation of celebrity culture, sex tapes, and reality shows. The desire to be known, by any means, by one’s peers has overwhelmed the desire to be respected by one’s community. And if notoriety is the standard, the more outrageous the action the better. And the more outrageous the action, the more media coverage is guaranteed, which in turns feeds copycats and yet more outrageous, and often criminal behavior. The idea of restraint and the desire for fame are simply not compatible.
The cultural drive towards notoriety, rather than respectability, is not an issue to be addressed by the formal criminal justice system. A problem that begins in the culture should be addressed in the culture. But if those participating in a flash mob caught on YouTube were sentenced to prison, we can guarantee you there would be fewer flash mobs. If people want to make fools of themselves and film it; fine. If they want to attempt crazy feats in which only they may be injured in ill-judged attempts at fame, fine. But the moment that a criminal act is committed, in the name of notoriety or otherwise, justice should be swift, and ruthless.
A person who truly respects themselves is very unlikely to commit crime. A person who fears the condemnation of the community will be restrained by that fear. But a person who neither respects themselves nor seeks the good opinion of the community will do whatever they think they can get away with.