Find Out What It Means To Me
January 30, 2007
Respect is a pretty big deal and has been, it seems, throughout human history. You respect your elders, respect religion, respect your fellow man, respect everybody’s opinion, etc. But what is respect exactly? Dictionary definitions turn up words like ‘deference’ and ‘obedience.’ Etymology turns up a Latinate root, ‘respectus’ which is the act of looking back or regarding (in each case, a certain distance is implied). I think in the previous examples, the appropriate synonym might be consideration, which implies both careful thought and esteem. Careful thought, I think most will agree, is virtuous. What about esteem? To esteem is to ascribe value relative to another thing (continuing to follow the dictionary paper trail). Value (as in we value opinions, we value religions, etc.) goes back to another Latin term, and I think it’s as far back as we need go: it means to be strong. So ‘respect,’ at bottom, is about giving deference to something or proclaiming its strength or relative worth. In each case, superiority is at least implicit. Herein lies the non-contradiction between today’s rhetoric of respect and the rhetoric, popular not so long ago of superiority. As with so many things, respect is only a softened version of superiority. When they aren’t required to think about it, people act as ‘respect’ been cleansed of it’s superlative qualities. Has it though?
I’m mainly concerned with this because I think it’s interesting to think of the way respect has changed over time and across culture. I think that the way that respect is ascribed pro bono nowadays without adequate justification is problematic. Do races and ethnicities deserve respect? Do religions deserve respect? Or do peoples and ideas, in our modern era, have to account for things like their value or legitimacy by way of merit and sound argument? Does a race exist? Plenty of people would say that it does not. Even if it did, what good does it do to offer deference or a tip of the hat to a group of people simply because they have certain physical qualities? Sounds suspiciously contradictory in terms of what we know to be the problem with the notion of race–precisely that it assumes that, because certain people have certain physical characteristics, they are better or worse than another person. People, we decided some time ago, only receive instant respect due to their being one of us humans–beyond that, all other forms of respect are merit based. Or, that’s what I thought…
I could even go one further and take up with the bigger picture, more Gaia oriented view of things–that we are all the same stuff, the universe as a whole. Respecting others and plants and animals and soil and water is like self-respect. It’s like your finger respecting your elbow. It’s a no-brainer. I’m treading dangerously close to hippie territory here, but just because I disapprove of the new-age, pseudo intellectual, wack-job spirituality that many hippies ascribe to doesn’t mean that this isn’t all just another version of Carl Sagan’s point in ‘Cosmos.’ That we are all just hydrogen atoms, given enough time to evolve. Everything. Couch this in a less flaky context (and hopefully a snazzier aesthetic) and it is a truth worth contemplating. This doesn’t mean we have to treat an ant as if its a 3 year old child–respect doesn’t equal preservation (another phenomenon of this universe is that it’s basically a crowd of organisms consuming one another–that is, for better or for worse the natural order). But, of course, some things should be preserved. Some things won’t survive. If I’m forced to choose, the child survives, the ant does not. Again, a no-brainer, but amazingly enough, these distinctions are still not apparent to many people. Judgment is currently out of fashion–but only in a sense. The ‘judge not lest ye be judged’ camp generally employs this adage in order to facilitate the espousal of their own brand of judgment. It is a disingenuous disarming ploy (much like the one often used when religious folks argue with atheists. Daniel Dennett described this as playing tennis with people who want to serve with the net down while you return with the net up.)
But once we’ve established that humans and nature deserve respect due to our sameness, when do we start entering into the world of judgment and when do we acknowledge our uniqueness and divisions? Basic scientific truths don’t necessarily convert to every manner of relativism. And a broader understanding of the vast spectrum of human traits, capacities, ideas and practices doesn’t vanquish the pursuit of ethics and need for judgment calls altogether. Saying so is a fundamental logical fallacy, since saying so is itself a judgment call. Scientific truths and broader understandings should inform our judgment calls. Which means that we can say that race does not exist and therefore no Caucasian, Arab, Jew, Innuit, or any other “race” deserves respect on the basis of their race. Nor does culture get a pass, simply because it belongs to somebody. Some cultures have been bloodthirsty and have instilled terrible characteristics in people. Some still do. Saying so shouldn’t be a crime. It also doesn’t mean they should be eliminated or put in ghettos, Pogroms and refugee camps. Doesn’t mean it’s time to dig the mass graves or prepare the gas chambers or keep them economically in a box. It’s time to make folks duke it out in the great battle of ideas. Let them validate themselves. Let them show by their merits if they deserve respect or if they don’t. The same goes for religions. Let them do it in an atmosphere of discussion, argument, and compromise whenever and wherever possible. And, when certain people make that impossible due to their hunger for power and bloodshed, let them hear from the rest of us loudly and clearly that their sabotage will not work and will not be tolerated. And if it’s a fight they demand, a fight they shall have. A short one, preferably.
All of this is still another reason why the United States and that pesky little Enlightenment still matter, no matter what the radical left says. The paper says “the general welfare.” And that thing about “the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity?” Our posterity we now know depends on the posterity of others. And if it is not the intended purpose of certain government activities abroad today, it should be. I’ve heard about Iraqi democracy not being “real democracy.” Ok. Maybe it isn’t. I for one have no authority to speak on the matter (though I do know at least that this disparity is overstated by the antiwar movement). But allowing for the democratic creation of several states hostile to civilization and hostile to certain methods of diplomacy and engagement hardly sounds like general welfare. And yes, yes, I know that those words refer to our nation, not to others. But are we to make no judgment calls at all? Are we to respect everybody’s way of doing things? It does seem that, prior to the postmoderns hijacking of the Enlightenment (they call it a “critique”), when a willingness to make judgments combined with the notion of general welfare and human dignity, something worthwhile sprang up–something that rejected old ways of inherited respect, whether they were racial, cultural, tribal or religious. Unless you were claiming to deserve respect for being part of “creation,” you had to earn it, prove it, argue for it. Walk the walk, as they say.
There is a reason we have the very legitimate conversations we have in college classrooms about how America isn’t the meritocracy or the democracy it proclaims to be–we have a taste of what those things might look like. It’s true that America isn’t perfectly democratic, the wealth remains in the hands of few who make decisions for many, etc., etc. But those moneyed people know that it’s best to be as silent as possible about exercising such power. It has become taboo and that fact is worth noticing. Nobody is supposed to think that their religion or their “race” gets special treatment. Interesting that it’s the left who always make the case that those things should be treated differently. Differently. Differently. Differently. Differently. Keep saying it. I’m as aware (and as sympathetic) as anybody of the notion “life chances” and of the historical perpetuation of the haves and the have-nots. But I’m also familiar with the contradiction in the rhetoric that proclaims sameness while demanding special treatment and some kind of ennobling. Doesn’t mean I’m for or against affirmative action, just means I see the contradiction. In this case, I am only tempted to suggest that one might be forced to choose between two choices that have both good and bad consequences. Eliminate entitlement and sectarianism or eliminate systemic poverty and historically inherited oppression. Is there a better choice here? I wouldn’t claim to know.
The world needs a lot more of a lot of things, but I’m not sure if respect, as an end in itself, is one of them. It’s almost as popular here as it is in the ‘Islamic world.’ People love to get respect. Well, sure–people enjoy superiority and being worshipped and applauded. But it is worth suggesting that perhaps people aren’t as inclined to misuse that which they have been made to work for, argue for, reason out and, as a result, understand. I’m sure this will be interpreted by some as a conservative diatribe. Not hardly–I am only advocating that the claims of both sides be subjected to a good deal of scrutiny. Where the reality doesn’t match the rhetoric, it should be forced to do so. So when Republicans talk about hard work as it equates to success, they should have to answer (a good answer–not the bullshit they usually try to pass off) to the very real question of systemic discrimination. And when liberals speak of respect and the glory of difference, they should have to own up to that fact that they are advocating a mere inversion of the existing problem.