To get back my youth I would do anything in the world,
except take exercise, get up early or be respectable.
When Oscar Wilde wrote those words, he was no doubt thinking of his more outrageous side, with his fine -effeminate- sense of dress, his taste, his bisexuality and the contrast with the plainness of the bourgeois “respectable” life. In today’s world, the norms have shifted, partly turning Oscar Wilde himself into the concept he rejects, by virtue of his elegance and eloquence, his individuality and his intellect. But if he is almost today’s emblem of respectability, who else in our contemporary world would find themselves in the “respectability” mold? Our world today has an inconspicuous aristocracy blacked out by a screamingly loud class of hyped entertainers. As an invisible respectable class is useless as a role-model, do then these actors and singers take their place? If not them, then who? Who takes on this role of respectable citizens, those to whom we can aspire (or not) to be like?
Let us first dispel the concept of “respect”, which had such a flourishing US TV life that they managed to sap all the meaning out of the word. It came to be a term suggesting tolerance, before sinking into the other depths of street kids and rappers where it was transformed into a contemporary expression like “cool”. But if we climb up the ladder away from TV and rappers, to the notion of “respectable” who should we look to?
The “respectable” is an elite which not only dictates a morality of a society, but lives it as well, even if perhaps in farce, hypocritically. They are both the pressure and norm by which to live in a given time. The historical top of the social ladder, is the royal family. But in today’s world, are they still respectable?
Even leaving aside perhaps the worst offenders, the UK and Monaco, recently it was announced that the Swedish Crown Princess Victoria was to be married to her fitness trainer. Does it still need to be said that this is not the right thing to do for a member of the Royal family. Not many people think that being noble elevates you to a higher moral ground, but the Princess in question is destined to be the future Queen of Sweden. Is this a fair exchange for the country? The Royal Family is offered a privileged position in society in exchange for upholding a cultural moral excellence earning the title of “respectability”. But by marrying a commoner, surely their elevated status evaporates. Was it then too much of a sacrifice to marry a foreign prince (or high nobility if it must be) to justify their position, to give Sweden the honour it expects. Why would the Swedish population even be willing to support their royal family if they are not capable of handling their side of the representative bargain? A Royal Family as any other family becomes any other family – their respectability will depend on their personal merits and no longer on their historical status.
Within the world of royalty, there is someone who not only plays their role but also uses it for the bettering of the world: Queen Rania of Jordan (who incidentally was raised into nobility). Besides caring for a family of four, she has used her position as Queen of a ruling monarch, to promote a lot of different philanthropic, economic, and social issues, both in Jordan and in the world. She is not only a regular speaker at international Forum’s, but she also did not shy away from opening her own YouTube channel to answer viewers’ questions to promote understanding of the arab world. But of course, not all royalty tries to better the world or make something of themselves. Queen Rania is the exception, having justified the respect and trust she was given by virtue of her position.
On such an individual level, to be respectable, or honourable, is to play with the cards you are dealt with best you can, to try to make something of yourself, to better yourself, and those around you. You have to be a model people can pull themselves up on, aspire to, even if they can never do what you do. This is the material for hero’s more than for a respectable class, which can be dull as long as they abide by their own rules.
Royalty, in general, do not live lives worth being impressed by, nor to be copied by those of less noble origins. They do not have to either, but they did manage to loose their respectability, their claim to being a class of moral and cultural leaders.
So who is today’s respectable elite? The noisiest class of people are the actors and singers, but surely they are not the respectable ones? In some societies they have taken in a place of a sort of contemporary aristocracy, but surely acting and singing is not the most impressive basis for being a role model? Singing or pretending to be someone else on film does not sound like the material for an elite, but something could be said for those that use their star status to promote political and humanitarian goals.
Think of the good looking soap star turned feature film actor George Clooney. Despite mostly playing in commercial films, he has been politically active. He helped bring desperately needed attention to the Darfur crisis, amongst other important issues. But does that make him respectable? He is also known to be a drugs user and exhibits a greed in not only being paid in millions for his films, but in pursuing more through the selling his image to advertising (for an excellent, but ecologically unsound coffee product and a strong alcohol). I do not mean to particularly single him out, but he is a remarkable example of the complexity of character of a public figure. And notice that his selection of vices and virtues are not those of an entire class of entertainers, they are his alone.
A public figure can be accused of not using his fame to some useful purpose, but expecting too much of someone who has been selected on good looks or a beautiful voice is a little extreme. That, and NOT being respectable is more amusing for an entertainer than those that are. In other words, the entertainment class is perhaps not the most logical choice. Perhaps we should turn to more old school professional roles, like the traditionally overpaid working class of bankers.
The financial sector with their banks and investors and accountants has long been a respectable industry, even if the vice of greed always overshadowed them. Recent times have given this sector a good beating with Nick Leeson and Jérôme Kerviel implicitly exposing gross mis-management. If that was not bad enough, they were followed by whole series of backrupties in the current (2008/ 2009) recession, further exposing not only banking incompetence but also general mismanagement of people and funds, and a completely inappropriate remuneration system for their corporate elite. If their image was not already bad enough, investor Bernard L. Madoff’s massive theft came along to sink it into the ground. The field is now completely tarnished with greed, perpetual ignorance and a lack of sophistication and honour.
It would seem that we live in an era which has no clear cut “respectable” class for the rest of society to look up to, only individual hero’s like Queen Rania or countless others. One could say that a liberal society is supposed to be classless, supposed to be one where every man makes something out of life for himself (or not, as the case may be). But how can we be good, as a collective, without a collective “respectable” class? That might sound like a class which is potentially corrupt or old-fashioned but such a class is more resilient than that. If “respectable” needs adjusting, as was the case with the Oscar Wilde, it will be.
The reason why nobody calls anyone else respectable is because there no longer is an objective norm defined by society’s “respectable” class, because there is no such group. Royalty is failing to uphold its own norms, the aristocracy has faded into obscurity and there is no professional class capable of taking their place. “Respectability”, if ever used today, has become another way of saying “law abiding”, which in western society is rather vague on someone’s morals. You can be an awful person and be law-abiding. This does not make up for the lack of an ostensible “respectable” group to look up to in society, which leaves you, for all practical purposes, on your own. But of course, with your own hero’s.
Image Sources … Cover of La Mode Illustrée by Florence Lenisten // Swedish Royal Family at the engagement announcement: Swedish Royal Court Handout/ EPA // Queen Rania of Jordan in Paris: Nasser Ayoub, Royal Hashemite Court Archives // George Clooney portrait: Francois Durand/ Getty // Bernard L. Madoff entering courthouse: AFP/ Getty Images