RESPECT: The Definition
Rodney Dangerfield was a popular comedian of my day whose punchline was: “I don’t get no respect!” I feel certain we can all identify with Rodney’s feeling, for we do not always feel the respect we crave as herd creatures. While researching the subject of this blog, I realized that the concept of respect could be applied in a variety of ways, which makes it difficult to find a definitive definition.
It is one of those words which can be used either as a verb or noun, and is defined by Google as either: 1). a feeling of admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements or 2). regard for the feelings, wishes, rights or traditions of others.
Thus, respect may be doled out to a person or to an ideal. It is the latter which allows us to communicate and negotiate with those with whom we don’t agree. Without such respect, attempts to resolve differences are likely to result in personal attacks. After all, if we believe he/she has no right to feel or think as we do, he/she must be an enemy.
Mom and Respect
This type of respect also bears a strong resemblance to what your mother called manners or politeness. Unfortunately, even in the face of this pandemic that threatens us all, we seem to have forgotten her lectures. Those whom we have hired to take care of such things expend much energy on deciding who left us so ill-prepared to deal with this coronavirus disaster even though we have been warned repeatedly over the past 50 years that such a pandemic was inevitable. I suppose there have always been self-serving jerks in politics, but I assume there are still some who have entered the fray with the best idealistic intentions, and who have not become totally jaded.
Where are the Idealistic Public Servants (aka: Politicians)
If they do exist, they have been strangely silent. The Washington old timers who are now mostly retired, talk nostalgically of a time when they could have intense disagreements with their opponents and still remain friends*. Rancor was left in the debate chamber because they had respect not only for each other, but for the rules which forbade personal attacks or insults. Those rules flowed from the respect they felt for the institution in which they served. Such “statesmen” were wise enough to realize that rude behavior does not promote conciliation. It stands in marked contrast to our present-day government in which many are said not to be on speaking terms with opponents, and camaraderie between those of different political persuasions is rare.
Respect and The Bill of Rights
Our forefathers were concerned about authoritarianism in government. Consequently, Madison’s Bill of Rights was amended to the Constitution in order to codify our freedoms. We now show our respect for those ideals by celebrating and honoring symbols such as the flag and national anthem by standing at attention, or holding our hand over our heart, etc. However, such behaviors are often subject to interpretation. According to the official flag code, disrespect for the flag is rampant, the most flagrant example of which is the wearing of clothes with the flag’s image on them, or other trivialization as in advertising, etc.
Respect or Disrespect? Time (History) is the Final “Decider”
Apparent disrespect for our national symbols has been a frequent means of protest, the most recent of which was kneeling during the National Anthem by NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. The Vietnam War protestors burned not only their draft cards but the flag. Medal winners John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists in the black power salute as they stood on the winner’s podium at the 1968 Olympics. They were vilified in the press, received death threats, and were kicked off the U.S. track team, but 40 years later would be honored with the ESPY award, specifically the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage.
Muhammed Ali was banned from boxing for two years in the prime of his boxing career because of his refusal to be drafted during the Vietnam War and his support for the Palestinians, but he too would later be honored, not only for his record as a boxer, but for his principled stand against the war. He was even given the honor of lighting the Olympic flame in 1996. Mr. Kaepernick has not been so fortunate, for he was cut from the team in spite of a good season and has received no offers to play anywhere else.**
Kaepernick’s transgression as with the others are viewed differently depending on one’s point of view. Many viewed his behavior as unpatriotic and insulting to those who had given their lives for their country. Trump said he should be fired, but others hailed him as a patriot who simply wanted to call attention to injustice, and was willing to put his career at risk for a noble cause. Whom or what we respect says much about what we value as individuals. We may have a great deal of respect for some particular quality, talent, or achievement in a person, while at the same time find them totally unworthy of our respect as a human being. For example, though most of us admire strength, we generally have little respect for bullies or dictators.
Respect for the Institution (the Office/the Ideal) versus Respect for the Person
It has been said many times that respect must be earned not given. A few centuries ago, when I was a young green Navy medical officer, I initially found myself embarrassed to be saluted by enlisted men, especially by those whom were much older than me and those who had served in combat. One day I asked one of my corpsmen how he felt about saluting and he straightened me out by saying: “Most of the time we don’t give a damn about you officers. We’re saluting the uniform, not you”. How we feel about you will depend on how we feel after serving under you.” I soon found out that there were salutes and salutes, and that sailors were adept at letting you know by the nature of their salute how they felt about your worthiness to wear that uniform.
Children and Respect (a Curmudgeon’s View)
Most people of my generation would likely agree that as a society we suffer from a respect deficit. Children in particular are charged with having “no respect for authority.”*** Although it is not a term often used in psychiatric parlance, I am a fan of the “monkey see monkey do” theory of childhood development, so that even when they hate us they end up emulating us in many ways. This was brought home to me many years ago by a patient in her late 70s with a history of a troubled relationship with her mother. In this session, my patient was discussing her frustration and sadness over her troubled relationship with her daughter when she suddenly paused and gasped: “I have become my mother” apparently realizing the pattern was repeating itself. Unfortunately, such insights are lacking in the so-called helicopter parents who undermine their kid’s respect for their teachers, then can’t understand little Johnny’s insolence.
Fear vs Respect
It is sometimes difficult to characterize our feelings regarding a specific authority as either respect, fear or both. Is it possible to respect (admire) something or someone of whom we are frightened? When people bow towards a monarch or dictator for example, is it out of respect or fear? Albert Einstein said: “Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth” In these times of a slide towards more authoritarian governments, it behooves us to use discretion in deciding what or who are worthy of our respect.
One of the difficulties involved in aging, lies in adjusting to changing mores. I grew up with one set of “good clothes” which were worn primarily on Sunday. I now have difficulty accepting less formal attire and find myself cringing when someone shows up for church in jeans or shorts. This, from a guy who hasn’t worn a necktie for several years, and professes to understand why the way one dresses should not be treated as a measure of their worth. Ronald Reagan was said to never enter the oval office unless dressed in a suit and tie as he felt informal dress would be disrespectful. Others would insist this to be a very superficial and undemocratic way of showing respect.
Since respect for a person must be earned, it goes without saying that the amount of respect one gains depends on what rather than who they are. To respect someone is a very personal thing, and depends to a large extent on the respecter’s values. When I was a kid we were told we should “respect our elders.” Imagine my chagrin to discover in my dotage that I am just another Rodney Dangerfield. Although, I have noted some deferential responses since I began using a cane, which leaves me to wonder if this is out of respect or pity. Does one earn respect points just for survival to a ripe (a word that indicates rot is imminent) old age.
In a capitalist society, one would expect that those institutions devoted to the common good along with those who worked in them would be highly valued, and consequently well compensated. Such does not appear to be the case for teachers, social workers, police officers, pastors, and others in “helping” professions are in general poorly paid. The exception lies with the medical professions, which have benefited by a demand for physicians which exceeds the supply.
Bravery is a quality universally admired consequently; we are now seeing not only health care workers, but also others in supportive roles who are exposed to the coronavirus gaining a great deal of respect. It is indeed refreshing to see those who clean the hospital rooms, transfer patients, and perform other kinds of so-called menial tasks, gain respect for their courage. There are others, such as those who stock grocery shelves, check us out at cash registers, and drive buses or trucks, who are also exposed to this deadly virus on a daily basis in order that we can hunker down and remain safe at home. They earn our respect every day.
The Humanity of Respect
To respect is a very human thing. To find someone or something that we admire, gives us hope and validates our values. Since God screwed up and left out the good judgement gene, we are not perfect. Consequently; we rarely respect the whole person without some qualifications. One of my favorite heroes is Jimmy Carter. He has received very poor marks as President, but is undoubtedly our best ex-president. Unlike others who built monuments to themselves, the Carter Center became an internationally recognized resource promoting adequate housing and as a monitor of election honesty all over the world. In my mind however, his most incredible accomplishment was the virtual elimination of the guinea worm, a horribly disabling parasitic infection which afflicted 3.5 million people. It was considered incurable, but after nearly 35 years of dogged pursuit by Carter, there are only 22 reported cases left in the world. With his commitment to fair housing, Carter not only talks the talk, but walks the walk, as he has continued to volunteer for Habitat for Humanity for decades. At 95, he is still hard at work on the front line working with his wife Rosalynn helping to build houses.
Respect for that which We Lack?
We also respect people for less humanitarian accomplishments which are usually reflective of our own personal interests. In many cases such respect may be colored with a touch of envy. For example, in my case, my respect for athletic accomplishments probably has a lot to do with my lack of any such talent. It is also true that musicians are more likely to recognize and respect exceptional talent than one such as myself who flunked in that department also. But if respect must be earned, then talent alone should not gain one respect, but rather what one does with his/her talents. Lebron James, whose talent I have always envied earned my respect during an interview in which he was questioned about his extreme workout routines. The following response said much about his character: “Since God gave my body this talent, I feel obligated to make the best use of it.”
Respect and Values
What or whom we respect says much about our values and aspirations. Respect is very personal and emblematic of the ideals which we deem important. It has the power to motivate and encourage its recipients while providing hope and inspiration to those who dispense it. Such power needs be given judiciously, especially in this era when we are deluged with misinformation. On the other hand, should we not show some respect for our common ancestry as in the story of Genesis or as in the anthropologists’ version of our origins. After all, we are all of the same species, and now face common threats. We are told that further pandemics are coming and climate change is here, yet we continue to bicker among ourselves. The adage that a common enemy tends to unite a people no longer seems to apply and mutual respect is in short supply.
During this time in which we bear witness to the fragility of life and to our vulnerabilities, many of us remain cloistered while others risk their lives to save others. In the midst of the tragedies of this pandemic, we who are home bound could make good use of that time to reassess what we value. The absence of hectic schedules may offer an opportunity for families to become reacquainted. I heard of one father who remarked that he had forgotten what it was like to have the family eat together, to play games, and have serious conversations. I was also pleased to hear that both adoption and fostering of dogs and cats is at an all time high, which would seem to indicate that people are still looking for something to love. That is a trait that deserves our utmost respect. It also gives me hope.
Editor’s Notes: My dad’s blogs often make me think of lessons, events, etc., I’ve experienced or read about. So here goes…
*I read an article or saw an interview where retired senators hypothesized that part of the inability to have bipartisan debates and meaningful discussions might be due to the fact that all legislators go their separate ways each weekend to head home. Before air travel was reasonably priced, congressional representatives had to room together to afford the job of being a public servant. I’ve searched google and can’t find the exact article (probably too old for Google), but it makes sense to me that whether you have an R after your name or a D is irrelevant when you share a bathroom. Everyone is forced to get along 🙂
** As eshrink noted: history determines which “disrespectful acts” eventually become acts of courage. Many people who take actions about an ideal that isn’t convenient for the current time and/or an idea that is ahead of its time are often vilified for that action. It’s my opinion that this may be due to the fact that so many of us are conditioned to look at the “act” to evaluate the short term incident instead of focusing on the “ideal” that is behind that act. One of my favorite quotes is by Eleanor Roosevelt, “Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.” I predict Kaepernick’s act to risk his career and his reputation, to use the platform he had at the time for a greater ideal rather than self-promotion will in time be recognized as an act of courage…just as the “disrespectful” acts of the 1968 Olympic Athletes and Mohammad Ali eventually were.
*** Curmudgeon Alert: I tell eshrink I will call him out when he is approaching “grumpy old man” territory. The third asterisk is where eshrink talks about young people being disrespectful. I hear him on helicopter parenting (child focus gone wild), but my parents were actually very ahead of their time in many ways (I’m sure a few teachers gossiped behind their backs about them over-indulging me or “over-parenting” as the term helicopter parent didn’t exist.
Therefore, I’m going to take eshrink to task regarding this sentence, “Unfortunately, such insights are lacking in the so-called helicopter parents who undermine their kid’s respect for their teachers, then can’t understand little Johnny’s insolence.”
I have several stories, but will try to narrow it down. As a child, I felt stuck because my parents told me to call my friends’ parents Mr. or Mrs. About nine times out of 10, my friend’s mom or dad would say, “Oh, please call me Jan [insert first name]” or “Call me John [insert name]”
I explained the quandary to my mom and dad. If I call them Mr. or Mrs., then I’m disrespecting my friend’s parents, but if I don’t call my friend’s parents by their first names as they have asked, I’m being disrespectful to my parents. I’m not sure I remember the resolution…I think I just didn’t call my friend’s parents by any name (I wash very shy and awkward so it wasn’t that big of a deal since I had very few friends…the “friend’s” isn’t a mistake in punctuation…haha).
However, a better story I recall is when my family moved from a wealthy suburb of Columbus to Zanesville, Ohio. The schools in Upper Arlington were very progressive at the time. As I recall, we didn’t get grades on our report card in elementary school, just Satisfactory (S) or Unsatisfactory (U), but more than that, each U or S was accompanied by a paragraph from the teacher about the pupil’s progress in that subject. When I arrived at John McIntire Elementary School in Zanesville, Ohio, as a 6th grader, my teacher banished her paddle the first day of school to explain what would happen if we disobeyed a number of rules…don’t remember the details…but bottom line was that she had the paddle and would administer “cracks” as she deemed appropriate. When my mom asked me how my first day of school went, I told her about “cracks” and paddles, etc. My mother, supported by my father, told me I was never to let that teacher or anyone else paddle me. “We don’t paddle you and I’m certainly not going to let someone else do it” I will say, my mom and dad were very good at explaining the reasons “why” and the “higher ideals” as far as the balance of respecting a position of authority didn’t mean you automatically respected that person or agreed with certain behaviors. Here’s what I got: “Do your best. Treat everyone with respect, including your teacher. Do your work and paddling won’t be an issue. If you do something wrong or if the school accuses you of doing something wrong and they say they are going to give you cracks, you tell them your parents said they need to be called first because we disagree with corporal punishment.” I somehow saw the difference between fighting for a higher ideal or principle that an authoritative system practices and being disrespectful. I think we call it civil disobedience and we witnessed a lot of that as I grew up in the 1970s very close to the campus of Ohio State University.
Another big win that put my parents in the “cool parent category” was when I came to them about an issue that bothered me. Our junior high, as all schools in our district during the ’70s, didn’t have air conditioning. The boys were allowed to wear shorts, but the girls weren’t. It was against the dress code. Mind you, we could wear a dress (with shorts underneath, obviously!), but that wasn’t the point. The principle was that girls were being treated differently and that didn’t make sense to me. The theory was that girls wearing shorts would be distracting to the pre-pubescent boys (shockingly, the same thing I heard uttered from an administrator and a teacher at my daughter’s middle school when I addressed the dress code there about the length of shorts or dresses girls could wear). Anyway, some budding feminists and I decided we would defy the dress code and wear shorts to school the next day. I talked to my mom and dad ahead of the big protest. I told them I might get suspended, but the office would most likely call them first to bring “proper clothing” for me to wear at school. They seemed to agree with the underlying principle and “gave me permission” to wear shorts to school and suffer the consequences for the greater good. My memory is a bit fuzzy of the details, but I do recall we were called to the office. Most of the girls hadn’t talked to their parents beforehand and when called they expressed their disapproval and brought them proper clothes, telling the office they would deal with their daughter’s unacceptable behavior when they got home.” I can’t remember who the one girl who was with me when we were kicked out of school, but we walked home and were suspended for a day of school. Nothing changed, but for some reason, we felt empowered as if we raised the issue to a new level…at least for that one day! Go Dr. and Mrs. Eshrink!!! I love you despite your helicopter parenting…haha.