We may throw the word around a lot, but we have little regard for respect. And nothing good thrives in a culture of disrespect. It could even be the strongest reason for the toxicity that has overtaken the world.
I learned early in life to respect my elders, which basically meant that I was expected to show some fear of adults.
Never mind that there’s a gulf of a difference between respect and fear (more on this later), this expected fear of grown-ups was a fundamental rule which, along with others, was designed to keep us young people from bringing shame to the family tree.
But with all of the rulemaking and strictness, no one thought to mention that I should respect my peers and those younger than I am. It just wasn’t important.
I did know of the Golden Rule, but the ‘doing unto others as I’d like them to do unto me’ thing was vague. I didn’t fully grasp it and it wasn’t emphasised enough to become a guiding principle.
For me and many people like me, childhood was the ground zero of the disrespect disease.
Fast forward several years into adulthood and the virus is thriving.
Mutual respect is lacking, and there are clear connections between people’s disregard for people and a variety of everyday issues – patriarchy and gender inequality, workplace harassment, mistreatment of domestic staff and the passive-aggressive interactions dotted across our lives.
Respect has long been sold as a discriminatory benefit, a privilege rooted in the flawed logic that people of a certain age, gender, economic status or any position of apparent power are excused from having much regard for anyone in a comparatively disadvantaged position. They’re just too important to be concerned with things as trivial as regard for their ‘inferiors’.
And with that twisted marketing ploy comes the license to do just about anything to the unrespected. After all, they are nothing.
So it becomes okay for us to yell at staff and call them names when we’re having a bad day.
Being vicious and abusive in the middle of an argument we’re losing is now, somehow, acceptable behaviour.
Opinions cease to matter the moment they aren’t in sync with ours. Forget that they may actually make more sense than whatever we’re hawking.
And, of course, personal space no longer means anything. Boundaries will be ignored. People will be touched inappropriately.
The truth is, we’ve become bullies. We’ve reverted to the savagery that centuries of progressive civilisation were supposed to smoothen out.
We go from being highly defensive to being highly offensive – two irrational extremes. And it’s all very normal to us, this madness?
We won’t give an inch or a quarter, we won’t make room for other people and their opinions but we demand to be accommodated? Strange.
See, respect means understanding that what’s right to me isn’t absolute, neither should it be my yardstick for measuring other people.
My rightness is a point of view, a perspective. Everyone else has one too, and if I make the effort to move out of my comfort zone of prejudice, I could see things in a different light – theirs.
It means the Golden Rule and then some: doing unto others as they would like to be done to them.
No one is an extension of myself, and no matter how well I treat myself, I cannot apply those standards to anyone else. I must learn and accept their standards for being treated.
The rediscovery of respect could be the most important awakening in recent human history, and it begins with conversation.
Conversation is a two-way street that has long been closed to incoming traffic. We’ve been far more concerned about getting our points and ideals across than we’ve been about listening and observing without bias. But if we don’t listen, it’s impossible to understand, so I’m starting with talking less. I already know what I know, asserting it doesn’t make me know it any better.
As I listen closer and more consistently, it’s natural that I’ll become more comfortable with opening up to what other people have to say, what they believe, what their boundaries are and why they live their lives the way they do.
Don’t misunderstand, no one requires my approval to be who they are. On the contrary, I am privileged to have a window into their lives. I earn that window seat by being compulsively civil. I keep it through habitual deference.
And if you think there’s nothing in it for me, you haven’t seen the entire picture.
Respect has an ice-breaking, heart-melting power that has been ignored over many years of encouraging assertion and the aggressive pursuit of what we want out of life.
That’s counterproductive. It may not seem like it, but respect is more powerful than any show of force. Besides, we conserve energy for useful things when we’re not being forceful.
Several times, I’ve seen the simple regard for people open doors and get results when nothing else worked. It could be the only magic left.
I’m a believer (not an idealist), and I have no doubt that I can win people over by putting them first. Sure, I could get burned, but half the world is on fire anyway and I’m done fighting fire with fire. It’s not working. I say we cool down, give ourselves a break and see what happens.
Are you with me?
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