Faith & Spirituality

Not All Respect Is Created Equal

Here’s the burning question of the day: Should respect be given unconditionally, or must it be earned?

The correct answer is: Yes. Both.

The answers you’re likely to hear may vary, though. Preachers, teachers, and seminar speakers hold forth on the importance of respect and we’re still not sure exactly what our obligations are, based on what they’re saying. Or we have a sneaking suspicion that those supposed obligations don’t actually make sense. Or, the expectations differ depending on whom you ask.

We’re not helped by the fact that, in English at least, we use one word in reference to two very different ideas. Two incredibly different kinds of respect.

Here’s my point of view on telling the difference:

The first kind of respect is simply human decency. When someone says that respect should be given unconditionally, this basic respect is (hopefully!) what they mean. The rules are pretty simple: Treat everyone with dignity and kindness. Express disagreement in non-hostile ways. Be friendly, cooperative, and considerate of others. We might simply call this good manners. And by “good manners” I don’t mean knowing which fork is your salad fork at a place setting; I mean courtesy, like saying please and thank you and cleaning up after yourself. Basically, the things little kids are taught to do in kindergarten. Nothing must be done to earn basic respect; all humans deserve it because they are made in God’s image.

The second kind of respect involves admiration and esteem. This kind of respect goes deeper than basic courtesy and assumes that a level of trust has been established. You will treat someone whom you respect in this way a bit differently than others. You might share your thoughts and feelings with them. You might seek their advice on a problem. You’ll probably see them as a role model of sorts. This kind of respect absolutely, positively should be earned. It should be reserved for people who are truly good examples, who have proved their integrity, wisdom, and trustworthiness over a long history. Admiration respect also belongs to those who have done heroic acts, such as members of the military. Either way, it’s merit-based. No one is inherently entitled to it. In fact, there will be trouble if it’s handed out indiscriminately.

Some well-meaning folks grasp at this distinction with sayings like “Respect the position, even if you don’t respect the person.” This is often said in reference to persons in positions of authority (teachers, bosses, government officials, etc.) whose conduct we find may odious but nevertheless whom we are not in a position to disobey.

I’d argue, though, that their position doesn’t have anything to do with it. Authority figures, like everyone else, deserve (basic) respect for one reason and one reason only: because they’re fellow humans. If their behavior doesn’t inspire your admiration, there is nothing that obligates you to give it. The “authority position” is, either way, irrelevant.

To sum up, I believe it would be more helpful to think of these two kinds of respect as homonyms (words that sound the same, but have vastly different meanings) rather than the same word with variable connotations. And then to adjust our teaching on the subject accordingly.

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