Respect. Oh, sweet baby rhesus, how that word is abused! From my own warped point of view (or at least, from my perspective based on the media I choose to examine,) this is perhaps the key word to define the past decade – not because it was particularly respectful, but because that was what everyone thought they deserved and decried not receiving. The ’80s were considered the “Me” decade; the ’00s might be considered the “Respect Me!” decade. I would like to think that this will pass in the next decade, but we’ll just have to see.

People don’t seem to understand what the word actually means. They demand respect for their views, for their practices, for their lack-of-respect for others. But respect does not translate to “right,” as in, the rights someone may have as a human, as a citizen, whatever. In the US, for instance, we have the right to follow whatever religion we choose – and frankly, no one can enforce or deny what we personally believe, obviously. But this does not mean anyone must respect that belief. Anyone has the right to believe what they want, and everyone else has the right to believe they’re ignorant loons. That’s how rights work.

Respect, however, is a personal quality, an opinion, a value judgment. One does not demand that an opinion favor them, or that everyone agrees to the same values. Respect is earned, despite the impression we might have culturally – for instance, the forced respect of military hierarchy (which isn’t actually respect, but discipline,) or the respect we are expected to have for community leaders or even the elderly. Respect isn’t even provided by laws – the best that they can provide is protection, but they only imply an attitude of respect.

Our culture is a bit confused over this issue, though. Still laboring under the supposed virtue of “political correctness,” we tend to hear people calling for respect and we pause or even give way, instead of the very simple and appropriate response, “You don’t demand that from me, buddy boy! Show me you’re worth it!” But we’ve gotten so far away from this now that people with some really whacked ideas and practices gain far too much attention for holding an opinion and thinking they’re special for that. It has really come down to the vain idea that one person holding an opinion supersedes anyone else holding an opposing one.

Such an attitude, however, destroys the very meaning of the word. Respect used to be something sought after precisely because it was a measure of accomplishment, of regard. You gained respect because you showed that your views were more appropriate, beneficial, or intelligent than average, because your skills exceeded most expectations, because you succeeded where others failed, or even because you demonstrated some self-improvement. It held importance because pleasing a majority of people meant you could provide the greatest benefit to society, or recognized that collective advances work better than individual competition. It was a measure of cultural selection, reinforcement of the benefits of cooperative society. We wanted it because we have internal drives to seek social elevation – that’s how our species works. To think that respect should be reduced to an automatic deference, to the mere recognition of individuality and opinion, actually denies that individuality in the first place.

This isn’t what those demanding respect actually want, though. They really do want to be elevated above others – they just don’t want to work for it.

This is a trap we can’t afford to fall for. No one has to respect another opinion; no one should be held from disagreement. Our ability to separate the bad from the good is the only thing that can possibly work to advance us, in either big or small ways. If someone has a dissenting opinion, this has as much right to be heard as any other.

Even more importantly, we often have a hard time speaking against the perceived majority – we don’t want to isolate ourselves among a group of adverse opinions. But think what happens if everyone feels that way – how do you know what majority opinion even is? If one person speaks their mind, and everyone else stays quiet because they don’t want to stand alone in dissent, you achieve a majority of one with all others abstaining. That’s ludicrous.

While it may sound hypothetical, this happens all the time. In discussions centered on fundamentalists and anti-social practices, I have seen an untold number of moderately religious folk take offense, avowing that they do not want to be lumped in with the fundies. And while I appreciate this sentiment, I find it particularly tiresome – because those same moderates are nowhere to be seen when fundamentalists, always regarded as an insignificant minority, define the path that religion takes. When Westboro Baptist Church parades around redefining both “intolerance” and “fucking asshole,” I have never seen any religious figure, no matter how prominent, speak against them. When some religious leader makes reprehensible opportunistic statements about disaster victims deserving their fate, in a crass attempt to capitalize on human suffering, I have never seen moderates lambaste the practice. When a politician stands up and blurts some pandering religious platitude, I have never seen any religious person of any level remind anyone that political office requires a neutral stance on religion. However, when treated with the lack of respect that necessarily follows from remaining silent in the face of religious impropriety, they cry that they did not support those actions, and apparently carried dissent in their hearts.

If I had more than four people reading this blog, I’d attempt to coin a term: “closet respectable,” referring to those who hold standards that they simply will not display or communicate. It reminds me of the “boyfriend in the next town” that high-school girls seem to have fairly frequently, the one no one ever gets to meet.

We cannot afford to treat respect as a right, as a bumper sticker rewarding non-accomplishment. Remaining silent in the face of what we disagree with produces nothing of any benefit. Being afraid to stand out merely lowers our standards of society. Respect is earned, and it should be a challenge to meet its criteria. If we fail to seek honest respect, we’re not providing any benefit, to others or even ourselves. And if we do not hold that bar of respect high for everyone, we allow our society to sink further toward mediocrity, failing everyone including ourselves.

If someone thinks they have respect because of their title, such as “christian,” “Democrat,” “white,” “male,” “supervisor,” “owner,” “high-salaried individual,” “doctor,” “feminist,” and so on… they’re almost certainly not thinking of respect in its intended definition. If they feel they’re respected by others holding the same titles, they perhaps need to ask if this is truly respect, or simply the lip-service paid by others just to garner the same attitude back towards themselves, mutual self-congratulation. And, of course, if this “respect” within their title is enough.

If we want honest respect, we should be prepared to cultivate it, raise it, groom it, and nurture it – always being aware that it comes from other people. The secret is to make them happy, and proud to bestow it upon us. We do not steal it from them, or take it as taxes; we receive it in trade for being respectable. If, of course, we are not receiving it, what we are offering is not worth it.

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