R-E-S-P-E-C-T: What Does it Mean to You?

By Wendy Thomas Russell | July 11, 2013 | 5 comments

Respect-aheadHelp a sister out here, people.

Much is made out of this issue of “respect.” As secular parents, we throw the word around all the time. (I  know I do.) We talk about respecting religion or religious beliefs. Or respecting people’s freedom to have those beliefs, or respecting people even if we don’t respect their beliefs. We also talk about the importance of treating people with respect.

When it comes to religious tolerance, the word pops up even more.

D’Arcy Lyness, a child and adolescent psychologist and the behavioral health editor for KidsHealth, defines “tolerance” as “an attitude of openness and respect for the differences that exist among people.”

When asked in a survey how they defined religious tolerance, one nonreligious parent said: “Tolerance is respecting people’s freedom to believe.”

Another parent said: “I don’t think ridiculous ideas should be respected, but every person’s inherent humanity should be respected.”

In other words: “Respect the person, not the belief.”

But what the hell does that even mean? And, please check me on this, but is that the message we really want to be sending?

An essay called — what else? — “Respect” published in 2010 in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy pointed out that more and more people in public life these days are invoking the word:

Environmentalists exhort us to respect nature, foes of abortion and capital punishment insist on respect for human life, members of racial and ethnic minorities and those discriminated against because of their gender, sexual orientation, age, religious beliefs, or economic status demand respect both as social and moral equals and for their cultural differences.

But, as the essay states, “there is no settled agreement in either everyday thinking or philosophical discussion about such issues as how to understand the concepts, what the appropriate objects of respect are, what is involved in respecting various objects, what the conditions are for self-respect, and what the scope is of any moral requirements regarding respect and self-respect.”

See? It’s complicated!

And if we can’t understand it ourselves, how do we explain it to kids? For example, let’s go back to this all-too-common demand that we place on children: “Respect the person, not the belief.”

Isn’t that fairly preposterous when you think about it?

Not because it’s impossible to respect a person without respecting her beliefs — it happens all the time! — but because we can’t make our kids respect something or someone. Respect is not something we can impose. It’s something a child must feel. Like love. I mean, right?

Now, of course, there’s a difference between feeling respect and behaving in a respectful manner. But it would seem that the latter would better be termed “polite” or “nice.” Or explained as the Golden Rule: Treat others the way you want to be treated.

I want my kid to know that respect is a feeling of admiration for someone or something — which is a personal. I might admire lots of things about a person, and if there are enough things I admire about a person, I’m likely to admire that person as a whole. If I don’t know someone very well, though, and all I know are things that I don’t admire, then I’m unlikely to admire them very much. If I don’t know someone, I can’t admire them.

The same is true in reverse. While I want very much for people to respect me, I don’t expect them to respect me. I know I must earn their respect.

It seems to me, as I write this, that we might be using the word too liberally with our children. We might be teaching them that everyone deserves to be respected, when what we really believe is that everyone deserves to be treated with kindness.

So you guys tell me. Does this make sense, or am I missing something?


5 comments

  1. I look at it this way: I respect your right to think and behave differently from me up to the point that our differences put us into conflict. If you don’t approve of abortion or gay marriage or working on Sunday, that’s fine. You don’t have to do those things. The moment you assume the authority to force anyone else to conform to your values against their will is when my respect ends.

  2. Jamie says:

    I love your point about having to earn respect. As far as beliefs, I like to think I respect a person’s right to hold whatever beliefs they choose. Someone should never be belittled for what they hold as truth. Not to say there can’t be disagreement but discourse needs to be respectful. Good post Wendy.

  3. Rich Wilson says:

    I often say that by default, everyone deserves respect. But the subtext to that is that there are reasons to not respect someone. As it pertains to your book/blog, I think the issue is that religion is either considered off limits to disrespect, or a particular target of disrespect.

    The rule I try to follow is to not say things to hurt people for no other reason than my amusement. But I may well say things that I know will hurt people, but only if I think there’s a greater purpose. Of course that doesn’t always work in practice.

    Sam Harris talks about the problem with religious beliefs being immune to criticism, when he describes a hypothetical religion where every 2nd child is blinded. And in his example a person who works in some capacity as an adviser to Obama said if it was a religious belief, then yes, it should not be criticized. (Given time I can probably find the timestamp in his “Moral Landscape” talk)

  4. Anon. says:

    I wish I could offer some insight, but I am in the same boat you are in this department. I’d be interested to see if anyone has found a way to reconcile respect for a person and not their beliefs. The word kindness certainly seems to make more sense than respect in such context.

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