This weekend I watched Akira Kurosawa's Hidden Fortress. Set in feudal Japan, the movie portray the very strict class roles of peasant, Samurai, and royalty. The two lowest-class characters felt the need to treat with great disrespect anyone who wasn't obviously higher than them in class. Several upper-class characters appear clad in nondescript garments that don't properly signal their status to the peasants, so the pair (a familiar cinematic duo of bumbling, bickering, cowardly males) only gets wise when the disrespect is turned around on them. Respect, it appears, is a one-way street, and a Japanese general or princess can completely disguise his or her social class simply by refraining from disrespecting the lower classes.
It was fiction, of course, but I wasn't struck by its historical accuracy or lack of same. I was struck by the familiarity of the pattern: "respect is a one-way street". It struck me in the same odd way it did in middle school and high school - whoever "lowered himself into the gutter" by throwing insults fastest and most frequently got the most respect. Just as I was taught that throwing insults debased the insulter, I was taught that respect was a two-way street and that it occurred between equals. The adults who taught this were obviously autistic, dishonest, or from a completely different culture.
It occurs to me now that the latter explanation is most likely. Equality in modern voter-states is as superficial as it is absolute. But while we lack the yeoman / republican equality of the early United States (i.e., anyone who paid taxes was considered a full citizen, worthy of reciprocated respect), we also lack the rigid caste structure of a feudal society. Instead, we have a chaotic socio-political tumult in which anyone who can put someone down "effectively" is, for the time being, a Samurai general or princess.
"Effectively" must be in quotation marks, of course, because I was taught (by mostly irrelevant adults from a different culture) that only sticks and stones can break our bones; names can never harm us. What "effectively" means nowadays is (a) quickly, (b) without remorse, and (c) using buzzwords of only the highest currency. Thus it is no longer "effective" to say someone is "retarded", you have to say they are "butthurt". (By invoking anal rape, the insulter aligns himself with prison gangs and likens his target to an incarcerated white man. And thus we see that anti-white bigotry has wormed its way into the most thoughtless chancres of everyday discourse, as it has into literature, social science, and governance.)
You can throw away class structures based on erudition, breeding, good looks, and money, but you will still have class structures. With no law and order, classes would sort themselves along the lines of combat ability and weapon stockpiles. For the time being, though, actual violence is kept to a minimum in circles occupied by the nonmilitary elites - college punks, propaganda hacks, and bureaucrats. The grownup is dead, and middle-aged adolescents rule in quite the same way that they ruled in school - clever putdowns.