Aretha Franklin’s 1967 hit song Respect is one of my favorites.
But have you noticed that the concept of respect has dramatically changed since 1967? It used to be that respect was something obtained through reputation or position, whether as a parent, a judge, the President, or whatever … it was earned. Nowadays it’s popular to think (or say) that respect is something that “everyone” is entitled to, regardless.
But is it?
Was Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist infamy entitled to respect? How about Bernie Madoff, O.J. Simpson, or Adolph Hitler? What about pedophiles, or that obnoxious neighbor who enjoys making people miserable? Is the politician you despise entitled to “respect?”
There is a difference between respect and civility. The cultural norms in a civil society encourage “civility” for all by discouraging violent, aggressive, rude, obnoxious, and offensive behavior. But, traditionally (and rightly), the normative standards of civil interaction do not impose unearned “respect.”
For a while, it was popular to believe that self-esteem was something that could be provided by others. But it can’t – it has to be earned and comes from within. Dignity is a respect of self, and respect is something that must be earned. The protect-feelings-at-all-costs theory did no favors for the maladjusted kids the pop-psych experiments produced.
Both the noun and the verb form of Respect come from “abilities, qualities, or achievements.”
But enablers of victim mentality have abandoned the traditional definition to say that everyone, by virtue of being alive, is entitled to respect (apparently regardless of their abilities, qualities, or achievements). And they are quick to claim woundedness from any perceived lack of respect. College campuses and other organizations are unwittingly contributing to this distorted view of respect by supplanting Civility codes with vague but mandated codes of “Respect.”
This more recent attempt to make everyone “equal” is troublesome for a couple of reasons. First, it dilutes the meaning of respect. If everyone is supposed to be respected, what incentive does that provide our children to act in ways that are worthy of, and earn them, respect? The fact that we were all the fastest swimmers in the womb is not a valid reason for being respected.
Second, when people (especially immature, impressionable people) are told that they are worthy of respect irrespective of merit, it not only provides them license to act in ways that are not respect-worthy but it also promotes feeling like a “victim” when they inevitably are not treated with respect. Instead of changing their behavior to warrant respect, they blame others for unfairly treating them “disrespectfully” (which is often defined as anything they don’t like).
Consider how many arguments, altercations, and even stabbings or shootings occur because people feel they were “dissed” or not given what they believe is “proper respect.” Gang and other subcultures place an amazingly high emphasis on respect (or, rather, “disrespect”). People are attacked and killed for even hints of disrespect, such as rebuffing sexual advances, disrespecting the fans of a band, or looking at someone the wrong way.
Words frame attitudes and emotions, so they do matter. We can do our part by distinguishing between civility, which should be expected in society regardless, and respect, which should be earned.