R.e.s.p.e.c.t. What does it mean and why should I care?

In my youth, my dad often gave me the following advice. Respect your elders, but don’t take any shit.

I took Dad to mean that there is a mutual component to respect, that my respecting my elders didn’t give them license to abuse me. Even youth are due a modicum of respect.

In this light, Dad’s advice seemed reasonable; good advice for a teen, in fact. Whatever Dad meant by his advice, I felt I had permission to set some boundaries. But what was required of me? Here’s what I thought.

Don’t say fuck in front of Gramma, even if she swears. Hold open doors, help her out. Don’t give her a hard time when she asks you to do something, just do it. Obey.

I didn’t have to fear Gramma, my Nan, if I breached any of these protocols. I did have to fear my dad. If I gave Nan lip, he’s who I’d have to answer to. But Dad also had to answer to Nan for how, or whether, he disciplined me.

Nan defended her grandchildren from her children when she determined the discipline was excessive or unwarranted. Dad and his siblings usually deferred to her judgment. Boundaries are negotiable, I noted, as I watched them stretch and contract between family members. And they are enforceable.

When I spilled milk on the floor of my maternal grandfather’s home, Dad threatened to spank me for being careless. Grampa stepped in and told Dad that he’d get a spanking if he laid a hand on me, and we all knew he meant it. And that he could do it. Dad backed off, but whether for fear of the physical threat, family discord or maybe even, given this opportunity for pause, the realisation that he overreacted, I can’t say. Nor, likely, could he. These things happen so fast.

I wonder. Did Dad respect, i.e. fear, my Grampa’s strength? Or did Dad respect my Grampa in whatever sense he meant by respect your elders?

Back in the day, I never asked Dad what he meant by respect your elders. But he’s still around and so when I drove him to an appointment the other day I took the opportunity to ask.

Dad replied, Well, there’s a lot of things in that word (respect). And he’s right. Yes, I pressed, but what do you mean? He thought for just a moment. Take the time to listen to other people’s perspectives, he said, even people you regard as uneducated or slow. They, too, have something to say. Don’t think that you know everything.

I suppressed a smile since Dad is an opinionated man prone to bluster to make his point.

All right, I said. But what do you mean by respect your elders? Dad answered, The elderly can be very wise; they’ve been around a long time, seen a lot of things. Not everyone listens to old people.

I reminded Dad, Not everyone listens to young people.

One of the things I most admire about Dad is his disposition toward the elderly and those challenged by a handicap, hardship, or lack of opportunity. In these interactions, Dad is unfailingly kind, patient, and generous with both time and deed. One might say I respect the way he respects these categorically vulnerable others.

I suspect Dad has some concept of merit underpinning his respect for the elderly, just as I have for the way he treats them. Each deserves respect, they’ve earned it. And some concept of social justice, I suspect, underpins his respect for the disadvantaged. As does my approval of this respect.

Approval also seems to underpin the concept of respect, but isn’t co-extensive with respect. I might approve of my boss firing an unreliable employee, but I won’t necessarily respect him for doing so. Though I might respect him for other reasons, and yet disapprove of many other things he’s done.

As with Dad’s disposition toward all those who don’t fit into the categories he deems deserving of special consideration, respect becomes context-specific, e.g. in the workplace, at home. It’s within these contexts that Dad picks out particular attributes or behaviours he deems worthy or not worthy of respect. He respects one friend for his craftsmanship, but not for the way he treats his wife. Another for his work ethic, but not for his dishonesty. Yet another for his intelligence, but not for his foul language.

It might behoove Dad to consider that some don’t consider work ethic as something worthy of respect, but hold the skill of deceit in high regard. And he might feel some chagrin when I point out these attributes describe James Bond. Probably not, actually. Dad’s no fool.

So where am I going with this discussion? Here.

There are many qualifiers associated with the word respect, which isn’t surprising since ‘respect’ is indexed to and so constrained by the particular circumstances of its use and whatever the user has in mind, such as a set of rules or principles. One must, or should, show-respect-to or haverespect-for some other(s) or some thing by doing such-and-such. The rules and principles are not always, or even usually, made explicit. And sometimes they are buried well below even the tacit awareness of the user, ready to erupt like a simmering volcano when violated.

Muddying the conceptual waters are the prepositional phrases with-respect-to and in-this-respect. Silence is respectful with respect to a testimony, but not to a victory march. Hence the concept of disrespect.

Disrespect is not the same as no-respect. If I say I don’t respect Shirley, it might simply mean that I don’t know Shirley well enough to determine whether and how I ought to respect her. Although I might inadvertently disrespect Shirley by offending her in some way due to my lack of familiarity with her sensibilities. Such as trying to explain to Shirley how it would be dishonest for me to say I respect her until I get to know her better. I might avoid offending Shirley by reverting to the default I respect you as a person. Diplomacy often rests on vacuous platitudes.

The take-away is that respect is bound up in some way with myriad concepts, not exhausted by those I’ve considered here. It also seems to include things one knows, things one ought to know, and things one couldn’t possibly know. And for all the times I’ve both used and mentioned respect in this post, I haven’t the foggiest what it means. Nor, I suspect, does anyone else.

Although it seems to mean something, and it feels like it means something, respect is a wobbly word. Try as one might to hammer it down, it’ll slip off to one side or another with every blow. But consider this. It’s in the hammering that one is fastened to the word, rather than the word fastened to any particular meaning.

If you’ve read my About page, you’ll recall that my over-arching interest is political rhetoric. By its nature, persuading the masses, political rhetoric is amenable to wobbly words because political audiences are amenable to wobbly words. Wobbly words are like a wild card in a game of poker. They can mean whatever one wants them to mean to play a winning hand. ‘Respect’ is particularly potent because it stirs up connotations of something noble and right, of allegiance to something good. Merely uttering the word is enough to billow one’s heart.

Respect the dead, respect the flag. Our dead and our flag.

More than one person has been shot or stabbed for ‘dissing another, and more than one war has been launched for the same.

For these reasons, I will continue to reckon with respect in future posts.

Categories: Political Rhetoric

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