We all want to show respect to the people around us – bosses, spouses, kids and just the people we encounter. But it isn’t always easy: some people don’t seem to earn our respect, or deserve it.
I think one of the problems we encounter is that there isn’t just one form of respect, there are (at least) three. Only one of those actually needs to be earned.
The first form of respect is the respect we owe to every other human being in the world, simply because they are human. (A related concept for another day is respect for other living things and the natural world.) This respect is due even to people with disagree with, or even abhor.
Hitler and Stalin, evil as their actions were, deserve the respect due to human beings. That’s tough to think about, but the issue is precisely that their slaughters were enabled by the dehumanisation of the victims – by treating some classes of human beings as inhuman or subhuman. We can give someone this form of respect but still strive to keep them from harming other people, even to the extent of going to war to stop them. John Donne’s poem from the early 1600s explains why:
No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
The second kind of respect is the respect due to a person because of a role they hold in our lives. A parent, teacher, political leader or the coach of a sports team is due certain kinds of respect just because of the role that person is in. This respect is directed toward the role more than the individual: whether or not we agree with the current occupant of the Prime Minister’s office, respect is due to the role and to the person who has that role.
This respect is a two-way street, of course: a parent owes respect to a child, a teacher to a student, a politician to a citizen, a coach to an athlete, based on their respective roles. Forgetting this two-way street of respect leads to abuse of power.
Not all roles are hierarchical, of course: there are also equal, peer relationship like marriages and friendships, or our relationships with our siblings. We owe respect to these people in our lives because of their roles, and that form of respect is innate, not earned. Some roles are much closer and more intimate than others, of course: I owe more role-related respect within my marriage than I owe to other Australians as a fellow Australian citizen.
This can be difficult in a situation where someone has betrayed this principle: a parent or partner who has been abusive, for example. It may be necessary to separate ourselves from that person. Respect does not mean putting up with abuse.
The third and final form of respect is respect for the individual person, and this must be earned. Being respected, liked, looked up to, being the kind of person who people want to be with and be like, is something that each of us need to earn through our actions. The actions that build respect show courtesy, kindness, integrity, honesty… a range of virtues. Indeed, we can think of virtues as the kinds of things that lead to being respected.
Each person deserves to be respected as a human being, and in the various roles s/he plays in the lives of others, but the highest form of respect is the kind we earn by making the world a better place because we’re in it.