Respect is a word that gets bandied about as a solution to the problem of souring public discourse and divisive, angry communications: online or otherwise. Many say, “The problem is we don’t respect each other – we don’t respect each others’ opinions, and we don’t respect people!” And so, it may be helpful to consider: what IS respect? What do we mean when we say, “Please respect my beliefs, as I respect yours,” or “I feel disrespected,” or, “Be respectful when you are speaking to him/her?” I have even heard people say, “If I respected your views, I would hold them myself” – which begs the question even more – what does respect mean? Does respect mean adoption? Or is respect just a posture? Or is it something in between? Let’s talk about that.
Dictionary.com notes that respect can be used as a noun or a verb. “Can I get a little respect?” is an example of its usage as an object. When used this way, the following definition applies: “deference to a right, privilege, privileged position, or someone or something considered to have certain rights or privileges; proper acceptance or courtesy; acknowledgment.” The person is asking to be accorded significance and value simply by virtue of being an individual, a human, a sentient being, a citizen. I think we can all agree this is, or should be common courtesy. Our civilization is founded on the equality of all persons, so this respect goes hand in hand.
When a sentence like, “How can I respect what you’re saying when you are wrong?” is uttered, the word is now being used as a verb. You do it to something – a person, an idea, etc. In a more positive usage, you could say, “I respect that thing you said.” To some, this form of respect might mean as little as “I understand – I have heard and processed what you have said into a category that I have experienced before, and that makes sense.” However, understanding and respecting are not equivalent terms. I can understand that puppies make good stew, but I am not willing to find out for myself or participate in such a meal. Communication can be clear without requiring what is communicated to be respected.
Respect communicates regard or value, but does not necessarily mean that value goes so far as to change one’s relationship with the person or idea. Again, there are two definitions for “respect” as a verb: “to hold in esteem or honour,” or “to show regard or consideration for.” In the first definition, a person or an idea is to be respected, because of their impact or influence. I might respect the president of the USA because he is the leader of a sovereign nation, but that respect does not necessitate my renouncing of my citizenship to sit under his authority. Likewise, if I respect an idea like providing transitional housing for those paroled from prison, that doesn’t mean I personally want to run one.
The last definition, “to show regard or consideration for” is the one that perhaps is most needed today. We need to respect one another more in this sense, to care about the impacts of our actions on others, to care about how messages are received by others, and to be sensitive to the stories and the wounds that others carry. To respect ideas presented by others doesn’t mean we have to adopt them ourselves, but it does mean we should expect the same treatment we afford to others. If I fail to respect other peoples’ views by giving them equal time, consideration, and voice to my own, I should not be surprised when others cease to respect my views and attempt to silence or de-platform myself. But more importantly, if I want to continue to be heard, continue to be a part of the conversation, continue to be one with a voice as we all seek to move forward together, I need to be willing to give that same respect to others.
Or, as Jesus said, “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.”