e_moon60 (e_moon60) wrote,

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Respect. Or Not.

Like many others, I've been following the news about the riots in the UK through Twitter posts in addition to regular news media...following links from one tweet to another, at times.  This led me to someone whose tweets are entirely negative--not only about the riots themselves, but about things reported to have been said by some of those involved.   One of the things tweeted resonated particularly because it seems to me this is a) typical of the privileged and b) also typical of the tangles humans get themselves into in social conflict.

The comment was in answer to someone who said the riots were (at least in part) the result of the participants not having gotten any respect from authorities, and the comment was "Respect must be earned."

When I was in high school, in a particularly annoying class with a particularly annoying and less than stellar teacher, I got in trouble for answering honestly a question the teacher asked, and was scolded by the counselor (to whom she reported me) for not respecting the teacher.  And my answer then was exactly the above: "Respect must be earned."    It's a handy answer for those who feel themselves superior to the person they don't respect.  In truth, that teacher was a lousy teacher, ignorant of material she should have known to teach that class and pretending to knowledge she didn't have.  I knew a lot of stuff she didn't know; I was trying to prepare myself for a first-class university and she clearly resented that...she didn't respect me, or for that matter higher learning, and I didn't respect her.  

And yet, in hindsight, while I still consider her a lousy and unqualified teacher far more interested in being respected than in being worthy of respect...I see my teenage self as far less able than I then thought, and certainly unwise (though not necessarily wrong) to say what I said--both in answer to her question in class, and to the counselor.   And in present sight, when a privileged person (which the person whose tweet I was reading clearly is--educated, financially secure, quite used to being respected in the field in which the person works)  uses that "Respect must be earned" to put down and ignore any reason why a rioter might have rioted other than bad character...I'm not comfortable with the answer.

I come at this now from another fifty years of life and education from my angry high school self.   I know more about human biology and what we inherited down the gene lines.  I know more about how many different kinds of people function in society: what choices they have and what choices they make and some (never all) of why.  I know more about politics and economics.  As a fiction writer, I've spent some serious time learning these and other things...and I've been in society, not apart from it, in various roles and in various groups.   (And that's why the title of this is Respect: Part 1.   What I want to share is too long for a single post.)  

First, a definition to be used here (in full awareness that other definitions are in play elsewhere.)   Respect is recognition that the other person is real: that they are worthy of being a partner in reciprocal interaction.   To respect a person is to listen, to see, to attempt to understand (even if, at the end, you don't.)   It is not agreement...I know people whom I respect (and listen to, and attempt to understand) while--on at least some issues--I cannot agree with them.   A respectful relationship is not one-sided: both parties listen, both parties share, both parties treat each other as worthy of the time.  Thus it is reciprocal.

Respect and fear are often confused.   The belligerent parent or teacher or police officer who says "You better respect me!  I'll teach you to respect me!"  wants obedience (or attention, or most commonly both), not respect.  Such persons are quite happy to have someone fear them--be too afraid to disobey or disagree.  Respect  is not fear.   Fear can exist without respect--and commonly does.   Fear breeds resentment, anger, a desire to transgress, to get even.

Admiration and respect are often confused.   The person who has achieved something we find good is often said to be "respected" for that achievement (even when the person is otherwise an A-one blot on humanity.)   But what we actually feel is admiration, sometimes rising to awe.   Honor and esteem arise from admiration and are not necessarily reciprocal.  If respect is mixed in, it's because the admirer has already built in a respect for individuals.  I admire a lot of people for their skill, their artistry, their intellect, their wit, their creativity, their craftsmanship, etc.  But many of these I do now know as individuals--I do not know whether I respect them as individuals.  And just having outstanding skills does not always engender respect--as achievement is perceived as a form of power, it can also engender resentment, anger, envy, etc.  

If respect does not arise from being intimidated by someone's overwhelming power (the parent/teacher/law officer/other) or from awareness of another's achievement, then where does it arise?   What is the spring of real respect?

Respect is part of the fundamental reciprocity of human social interaction from birth.   It is a relationship between individuals, in which each sees the other as fully real, and it is learned in the way of other relationships--by experience and example.  If you want a respectful child, respect the child.   Humans are mimics.   Even autistic children (as I have reason to know) are mimics to the degree possible.   So children learn to be respectful by experiencing respect from those--especially those in power--around them.   Not only respectful treatment of them, but respectful treatment of others by their models.  

Respecting a child does not mean indulging the child, or spoiling the child, or allowing the child to be a tyrant to the family.   It does mean acknowledging the child's reality as real to the child: that the scared child is scared, that the angry child is angry, that disappointment is real.   It is amazing, when you pay attention, how often children's reality is denied without thought by adults:  "You're not really tired."  "You're not that hungry."   "No, it's not too hot--now sit still."  "That doesn't really hurt."  "It's not that bad."  Children whose reality is dismissed as nonexistent or unimportant most or all of the time learn that they are not respected--they are not heard--and by extension, that when they are older, they will not have to listen to or respect others realities.

If they are privileged children, they grow up to dismiss the realities of the poor and fabricate reasons why they don't have to listen.  If they are poor, they grow up to find that their adult realities are dismissed by the privileged and their concerns are still not heard.  They are right when they say they are not respected, even if their experienced definitions are wrong.

In the UK, as in the US, gender and racial and class distinctions have the practical result that some people are treated as nonentities.   Their opinions are ignored or abruptly dismissed as worthless.   They are not seen, or heard, as individuals of value...and what they learn from that, and from the way they are treated, is that power allows others to ignore them...so if they get power (by whatever means) they can then treat the others as they themselves were treated.   When I was in grad school, a new program brought talented high school students from predominantly low-income Hispanic neighborhoods out to the university for a special program.  Immediately a few faculty expressed the concern that "that kind of person" wouldn't really learn much, wouldn't stay in the program, wouldn't benefit from it, and would damage the lab equipment they used.  I had heard this in high school in South Texas as well...that it was a waste of time and energy to help "those kids" because they would all just drop out.

How much respect--in any definition--did "those kids" get?   Automatically shunted away from the better academic classes to the lowest, automatically seen as potential dropouts, their contribution to their family's welfare ignored or scorned as proof they were not committed to academics...who ever actually saw them, or listened to them?   In those days, high school faculty paid little attention to students as real people anyway. 

Whether or not those students did anything wrong, they were judged unworthy of respect by those in power.   How could they "earn" respect, even in the faulty definitions of the day?  What could they do?   The school respected wealth, power in the community, "prominence," a particular set of other social virtues.   The school (like most people) "respected" (admired or feared or both) a wealthy white businessman even if in secret (or not so secret) he was a wife-beater, a bully to his children and his employees.  The school did not respect those who lacked these attributes or who had a particular set of socially disapproved conditions.    A kid from a poor family cannot become rich, powerful,  or change his/her skin color.  I knew from my own experience in high school that studying hard and making good grades did not get respect from most of the teachers, let alone the staff--they regarded "grinds" as suspicious (especially if they were girls.)   The only students who got real respect were the children of parents the school knew had power.  I was a "child of divorce"--socially "at risk" (and in some circles already condemned.)   Nothing I did, nothing within my control--not good behavior, not good grades--could compensate for those things I could not control: we had a low income, we lived in a small house (lucky to have a house!), my mother was a single parent and worked full time. 

That's mild compared to what the kids in the barrio faced, and what kids in ghettoized neighborhoods face.  The police weren't always stopping me to see if I'd committed a crime.   I wasn't in constant danger from drive-by shootings.  I knew--from the other not-respected kids--what additional burdens they faced that I escaped.  And I experienced just enough of that--just that little bit that landed on my head and back--to know what it does to have that kind of unearned contempt.   The kids whose parents were respected did no better than I did--they weren't more mannerly, they didn't make better grades, they didn't study harder--but they got respect.  Teachers did not question their right to have dreams and ambitions--did not try to shunt them into "appropriate" classes for their presumed lifetime of servitude.  And no, they did not "earn" it.

Though I don't agree with the position that "Respect must be earned"...I think rather than attack that statement head on it's worthwhile to ask "Then do the people you consider lesser have a way to earn it?  What would it take for you (and others) to respect the people in one of "those" neighborhoods?   The ones you think you're superior to?   Are your demands to "earn" respect connected to reality at all?    If there are no jobs--if there is no housing--and your demands depend on holding employment that pays enough for what you call "decent" housing...then how, exactly, are these people going to earn your respect?   If there are no good schools--if the libraries have closed--just exactly how is that child supposed to "earn" an education?   If you have allowed a neighborhood to exist with no access to beauty--no parks--and no access to learning--and no quiet and no peace--and everyone in it laboring under the suspicion of the police because they're "that kind of people", the kind you think deserve no respect...how the HELL are they supposed to earn it?  They're presumed guilty for existing.  

And you think you've earned the respect you get?   You think it's all due to your hard work and your good character?  How many times in childhood were YOU stopped by police when you had done nothing wrong?  How many times did teachers assume you were the one who stole something because of where you came from?  How many times were you eyed with suspicion by shopkeepers, yelled at, scolded, for things you had never done?   Or conversely, when your respectable and respected parents took you out, how many times were you treated courteously and respectfully because they were respected, and they were respected because they were clearly "our type"--they dressed well because they could afford to; they spoke well because they'd had the education and opportunity to learn;they had money to spend; they had a house or a nice apartment and you had access to parks, libraries, museums, schools where your right to that access was assumed.

Money "earns" that kind of respect.  Unearned money "earns" it as easily as money for which you worked 16 hours a day in a sweatshop.  Power earns that kind of respect.  It has not one damn thing to do with good character, or actual hard work...it has to do with whether you've got the money and the power money confers.  Money to clothe your child in the right clothes, to have their teeth straightened, to live in the right neighborhood, to furnish your house with the right things, to be sure your child goes to the right school...that's how that kind of  respect is "earned."  And there are those who cannot ever "earn" that kind of respect, the way things are set against them.  They have no respect because there is no way for them to earn it: no way to become powerful, wealthy, and just like you.   

The other kind--what I call respect rather than "deference" or "admiration" or "fear"  is "earned"--if that word must be used--one by one, one person at a time, by treating individuals as real and their reality as--whether you see things the same way or not--real-for-them.   

Ritual disclaimer:  as others have said, diagnosing is not the same as excusing.   But here's the thing: if you goad people far enough, they will behave badly.   It's still bad behavior but who started it?   What the excuse of those who behaved badly when they had power? 

Tags: politics

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