Why Your Respect (Probably) Means Nothing

Some of the stuff that you remember from adolescence is pretty great.  I always fancied myself a little smarter and a little more knowledgeable than just about all my peers and the majority of my teachers.  What I lack in humility, I seem to make up for in fanciful reconstructions.  Being a product of the Catholic school system, one of the courses that I took in high school was world religions.  I enjoyed the class and did fairly well in it, scoring somewhere in the 90’s.  At the end of term, I received a report card with my listed grades and comments from my teachers.  Most of the comments were pretty standard, but the ones from my world religions teacher were truly exceptional.  In big, capital letters (which was odd enough) it read: NEEDS TO RESPECT THE IDEAS AND OPINIONS OF OTHERS.  I admit it, I laughed out loud and showed all of my friends.  I suppose that I had a bit of a reputation for being argumentative (and, dare I say it…difficult) and challenging the teacher and others.  To this day, I regard those comments as my proudest scholastic achievement.

At this point (and if anyone is reading this), you might be scratching your head and wondering why I take being called “disrespectful” as such a compliment.  It’s a fair question and it’s really something that I’ve thought a lot about.  Firstly, I think that we, as a society, are guilty of misusing language in many ways.  Granted, my thesis here is really my own (subjective) account of how language should be approached.  That said, the word “respect” seems to be consistently misused.  Specifically, it is used (wrongly) in place of “tolerance”.  The concept of respecting involves, in my opinion, a much deeper and more meaningful acceptance than merely tolerating something.  When a teacher/parent/mentor tells you that you ought to “respect” another person’s beliefs or viewpoints, they are really telling you that you have a duty to tolerate that person’s views.  You must accept that people have viewpoints contrary to your own and that these viewpoints have a right to exist without undue interference by you (where that line falls is an entirely different issue that I do not propose to discuss here).  

Tolerance, as such, is to practice a useful and necessary form of social cohesion that will always be necessary in a diverse society.  It should not, however, be confused with respect.  The threshold for tolerance and the threshold for respect are vastly different.  You should presumptively treat people and their opinions with a tolerant attitude.  You should never presumptively respect anything.  To respect anything implies a deep and meaningful evaluation.  Presuming anything substantial cannot, I think, exist alongside an informed decision to treat something with respect.  That is also why the suggestion that anyone or anything is “owed” respect is silly.  At the risk of sounding platitudinous, respect DOES need to be earned.  To respect something is to have thought deeply and carefully about what it means and what it stands for.   Being entitled to respect is silly because it removes the requirement for deep scrutiny. 

There are certainly things that we ought to tolerate and not respect.  There are also things that we should neither respect, nor tolerate.  Are there ideas or things that we respect but not tolerate?  They are difficult to imagine at first glance.  I would propose that something like retribution or revenge (i.e. an eye for an eye) is a concept that many of us deeply respect, but we as a society tend not to tolerate (at least, officially).    Generally, though, respect seems to include tolerance as a kind of gateway.  It does not seem necessary to think exhaustively about all of the things that require tolerance but not respect and vice versa.  What is important is that these concepts are distinguished and put in proper context. 

As well, it bears mentioning that not respecting something is not necessarily the same as disrespecting it or rejecting it.  Let’s use an example: I am tolerant of the fact that some people go hunting.  I wouldn’t say that I respect that practice or the choice to engage in it.  However, I don’t think of it with much disrespect, either.  The question of respect and the substantive judgement that goes into it just does not factor into such a practice.  Obviously, your selection of respect and disrespect will differ from my own.  It is simply worth remembering that respect and a lack of it do not exist on some dichotomy between “only complimentary” and “only dismissive”.  There are many benign interests that my peers engage in and that I tolerate them engaging in.  The question of whether I respect them is irrelevant because they do not engage my life or beliefs in a meaningful enough way. 

Like my first ever entry in this blog about apologies, I wonder if “respect” has become watered down to the point of meaninglessness.  The choice to respect something or someone will always require difficult questions and frank evaluations.  When it does not is when it will have become meaningless.  Tolerance is not difficult to practice and nor is it a difficult standard for most practices or ideas to meet.  We can tolerate most things and still avoid the need to scrutinize.  Never acquiesce to respect something simply because it seems expected of you.  There is no one and nothing that is worthy of your unqualified respect. 

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