Two Kinds of Respect

There’s a lot of words in English with multiple meanings. Sometimes the meanings have so much overlap or similarities, that the different meanings start to meld into one in many minds, which can make communication difficult.

One of the words I’ve realized I really need to clarify the similar meanings of is respect, because the cloudiness seems to cause some conflict in our society.

Respect, vaguely, means regard or honor paid towards another person or thing in our behavior and words. Which seems clear and fine. Except there are some very, very different applications of it.

On a general level, I try to respect everyone and lots of nature (though I do have a hard time with spiders and super-nasty bugs. I’m gonna call that small-r respect, because it isn’t earned by any choices or qualities. It just is something that reflects my values of others and their feelings. It’s recognizing that everyone has an inherent worth that is immutable, and that how I treat them on a basic level shows how good I am, and has nothing to do with their qualities or choices.  With small-r respect, I have a personal responsibility to treat others with thoughtfulness and civility.  I have a personal responsibility to at least not try to make them uncomfortable, in my general sense of what commonly makes people uncomfortable.  Some examples of this are: though I personally swear like a sailor, I recognize that there is a standard set of words in various cultures that make people uncomfortable.  Rather than mock them or force them to listen to those words in some smugly self-righteous attempt to force them into being less uptight, I try to avoid uttering those words out loud when I am around relative strangers or when I know the words make the people around me uncomfortable.  Why?  Because simply, I don’t need to say those words, and my desire to say them is far less important than their relative comfort.  It is not my place to judge what language is right and wrong for everyone, it is not my place to ‘teach’ them what I think is right when it doesn’t hurt ANYONE to be mindful of their words in regards to the people with whom they are interacting. Some might say, “they don’t deserve that,” but it’s not about deserving (which I am rarely qualified to judge anyway). It’s about a basic level of respect and says far more about me than it does about them.

The big-R Respect is different. That IS earned, based on choices and qualities.  This Respect goes above and beyond basic civility, and affects not only extra regard I might have for someone, but boundaries I may set in interacting with them. For instance, I may go to a doctor for some medical advice. By default, I will pay more heed to his words–Respect them, as it were–because of the education, expertise, and licensure.  In that sense, he might have more credibility. However, if I talk to him and find that he refuses to listen to me, or has certain biases, ignorance or weaknesses that I have learned from experience will negatively impact my treatment, my Respect for him will diminish. Yes, he still has the education and licensure and some level of expertise. But Respect is a big field that covers lots of different factors, and I have learned not to grant anyone full RESPECT simply because of a title or position–something we should all be aware of especially in regards to educational titles, in light of recent college admissions scandals and the knowledge that there are many people in our society who have degrees without the knowledge generally required to earn them.

This type of Respect also applies very much to the people that I interact with daily. If I am raising a teenager, they might want, or even demand Respect. And as they demonstrate good choices and efforts, I will give it to them, while ALWAYS trying to give them respect.  But Respect needs to be earned by choices and efforts, because Respect is both incentive for us to try harder and an aid for making important decisions about responsibilities, authorities, and whom to trust.  If we start giving out Respect to just anyone because they ask for it, or for traits unrelated to the area in which expertise is needed, it causes problems (for instance, electing an official because of charisma or wealth, when they have zero integrity or understanding for the issues in which they will have the responsibility and ability to make important decisions once elected).

TL;DR: Don’t mix up treating people nicely, which you should always do, with giving them unearned authority, power, or praise, which you should NOT.

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