The rise of reverence

December 13, 2012 by
Filed under: Social Economy 

It is often said that society has witnessed a significant ‘decline of deference’ over the past few decades. The argument goes that institutions such as Westminster, the Church, Fleet Street and Scotland Yard have all lost their positions as trusted pillars of society and along with it their grip on people’s values, attitudes and behaviours.

It is hard to argue with this observation. Indeed, on the back of the phone-hacking, child abuse and expenses scandals, it is natural to assume that trust in authority figures is at an all-time low. Yet, if you were to take a step back and look at the cultural undertones of the past year or so, it can sometimes feel as though we are now experiencing a trend running in the opposite direction. In other words, from a decline of deference to a rise in reverence.

A number of recent news articles prompted this thought in my mind. The first was Nick Cohen’s piece in last Sunday’s Observer, where, in describing people’s muted response to the drawn out decline in living standards, he argued that Britain had lost its will to fight and that “the most notable feature of the British today is their docility, servility, even”.  On a similar note, Boris Johnson recently said he was surprised that young people weren’t protesting in the streets about the state of the housing market in London.

The second article was another piece in the Guardian, this one some months ago, in which Richard Seymour lamented the strange “Britannia fetish” sweeping the nation.  From the ubiquitous patriotic “keep calm and carry on” products, to the endless period dramas being played on our screens, to Ed Miliband’s recent conference speech invoking the Victorian nationalist spirit of patriotism, for Seymour and others it is clear that we have once again warmed up to idea that we should dutifully revere Queen and country.

This combination of docility combined with patriotism indicates a growing shift towards what might be termed as “Grid-like” cultures. Mary Douglas, one of the foremost proponents of cultural theory, wrote that different cultural leanings can be understood by the varying degree of presence of two criteria: Grid and Group. Group refers to the importance of the collective in a culture, whereas Grid refers to the emphasis on rules and roles.

The theory goes that where there are high Grid-like cultures, we see more instances of hierarchicalism and fatalism. So to turn back to my original point, and to put it quite crudely, is the docility we are now witnessing a new form of fatalism, and is the patriotic sentiment that is seemingly gripping the nation a sign of an emerging hierarchical culture? The obvious rebuttal here is of course the existence of the Occupy movement. Yet this could actually conversely be seen as a reaction to the deference and “servility” that its members see as too widespread.

If this shift is taking place, why is it happening now? There are perhaps 2 answers to this question. The first is that severe economic stagnation in Western countries is encouraging people to cling to established structures – aka rules and roles – in the hope that they can provide some kind of stability. (See a previous blog post for an interesting phenomenon called the ‘just world bias’, whereby we defend the status quo in times of crisis).

The second potential driver of the fatalistic/hierarchical phenomenon is the sheer confusion that has struck most of society in the past few years. In a revealing LRB article, David Runciman writes that nobody really knows who is in charge of the financial and political spheres and because of this we now live in “a frightened liberal democracy.” The result is arguably that many people are left feeling rather overwhelmed and unsure as to what they can achieve on their own.

While some may praise the recent surge of national pride in the UK, it seems to me that a more placid, revering population is exactly the opposite of what we need to tackle our most entrenched social problems and to get the country back on its feet again. As a telling article by The Economist argues, a stuck society where “nothing much” happens has long-term, troubling implications.

Benedict Dellot is a Senior Researcher in the RSA’s Action and Research Centre. Twitter: @Benedictdel Emai: benedict.dellot@rsa.org.uk

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