Respect is a complex issue, and lies at the heart of every movement for equality or against abuse. The primary struggle against racism, misogyny, and genocide are all directly related to the limited number of people who have taken the time to understand respect worldwide. Without respect, real love is not possible, and neither is a healthy culture or society.
I started my research and reflection for this text intent to write a female equivalent of my “10 things every guy should know,” which itself touches on some “feminist” topics (and I encourage anyone who likes this text to read it) . In my attempts to reach out to feminists and sociologists in my broader circle and at my university, I was essentially universally advised not to write it and the many of my requests for input were actually ignored or not answered whatsoever. The differing levels of respect I received from feminists when reaching out to write a text clearing up misconceptions about identity, gender roles, self-worth, and respect, led me to realize that respect is actually at the core of every issue I was seeking to cover.
So, I decided to compile my thoughts into a few (7) overarching points. This list is, of course, by no means exhaustive.
1. Respect means treating people as individuals
This is a really simple concept: accept that a person is a mix of what they have experienced (including where they come from), how they see/choose to see things, and where they want to go. We do not get to choose what we have been through or experienced, and we cannot define people solely through their past as much as we can define them solely through their ethnicity, looks, or gender.
Understanding people are individuals forces you to understand their actions as an expression of who they are (which, admittedly, is partially a product of social identity), and allows you to hold them (and not some group) responsible for it. Respecting people on an individual basis also allows you to better understand their behavior, and show deeper empathy.
2. Showing respect doesn’t always mean being nice
Respect excludes actions or expressions which seek solely to damage, but they in no way exclude criticism or critical thinking. Saying no to someone is almost certainly not going to please them, but respect for yourself and the other’s understanding of the world makes expressing and explaining your actual position more meaningful and respectful. This also means not punishing people for honesty, no matter what that honesty is.
Of course, timing and context are important, and must be considered in regard to honesty. There is a time and a place for every discussion, and many things are best discussed in a tighter circle (to allow the criticism to be accepted and not defended against in an effort to defend reputation). Avoiding answering a question is a right someone always has, and as a receiver of such an answer you should understand it is in fact more respectful than a lie.
That said, there is nothing respectful about tolerating another treating others with disrespect (denying their humanity, their value, and their potential): you set a positive precedent when you stand up in such instances. This will not immediately gain you respect, but an unwavering respect for life will gain you more respect long term than any financial accomplishments.
3. Respecting yourself is an important part of respecting others
Understanding yourself as a decent human being is important to your ability to actually be one. This doesn’t mean excusing anything bad you have done: it means taking ownership of it and doing your best to set it right and prevent it from happening again.
The human brain is malleable: it can form and reform connections dynamically. In neurobiology, this is called neuroplasticity. Breaking old patterns while instating and reinforcing new ones is the key to changing your habits, which in turn affect your self-perception. If you are worried about not being a good person: prove it in every interpersonal exchange you have. This will not only convince you, but it will convince others, who will in turn help solidify this positive way of seeing yourself.
4. Honesty is one of the highest forms of respect
While lies are easy, often two-dimensional, distractions from reality. Taking the trouble to try to figure out the truth of something, and to express it purposefully to another, is worth more than 1000 easy avoidances. Being honest entails accepting that the other person, as a human, has the capacity to understand your thoughts and ideas. It means giving them room to reflect on, and give feedback, about your position or thoughts. Doing this makes you more ‘vulnerable,’ but it also shows your ability to think far and opens you up to learn more than any cliché small talk, or quotes from some series or movie.
That said, as mentioned in point 2, there is a time and place for deeper or harsher honesty, which is rarely not in front of a group or in public.
5. Giving respect won’t always mean getting it back: accept this
Treating others with respect is something done not just for the other, but also for yourself. Respect is something which may be given, but it cannot be demanded in return. If your respect is not returned by another, this says far more about them than it does about you, and helps you immediately know to be careful of this person. Do not take it personally: it will only skew your motives and understanding of the situation (as well as the other person).
Understand that if people cannot show themselves or you respect, you may actually have to show them it is possible for them to even believe such a thing exists. If you want to deal with them then you should show them a respect that they don’t show to themselves, and not take their ‘weirdness’ personally, or use it against them in any way.
Sometimes, others are not acquainted with respectful interpersonal relationships, and may first be skeptical or cynical towards attempts to treat them as a human, with all the potential that entails. Not judging them, but instead understanding they themselves lack the emotional resources to give, helps you empathize with them despite their lack of doing so. This doesn’t mean you have to help them, it just means you don’t have to despise them for not returning (or accepting) what you offer.
6. Fear has nothing to do with respect
Confusing fear and respect is a serious problem in our society, probably based on the fact that governments routinely ‘validate’ their right to rule through directed violence against dissidents or protesters. Since authority figures are to ‘be respected,’ and historically have used violence of various types to maintain their ‘respect,’ confusion is not unexpected.
Fear, unfortunately, leads to a gross misunderstanding of oneself, others, and the situation. Courteous actions done under the threat of violence, or out of fear, have absolutely nothing to do with respect and culture no long term loyalty. While respect through understanding and appreciation is likely to generate pats on the back, attempting to generate respect through fear is more likely to generate a knife in the back.
7. Forgiving yourself and others stems out of respect for the dynamic nature of life
None of us are slaves: not to our identity, our friends, our jobs, our countries, or our pasts. Forgiving means not holding onto hostilities or negative emotions, but does not entail letting your guard down (in regard to yourself, or to others). People tend to be creatures of habit, and although change is possible, it is the result of a dedicated effort. Not demonizing anyone, or reducing their humanity, is different from naively believing people are independent from their past.
Forgiveness works best when undertaken hand-in-hand with strategy. Understanding this will be the key to changing our society enough to avoid the serious possibility of impending biosphere collapse. Respect for yourself and others culminates in a respect for the environment, which lies at the center of almost every indigenous resistance to civilization. If civilization can come to understand respect and take responsibility the existing situation, it can come to survive on this planet, otherwise our odds do not look good.