What is respect?
December 19, 2011 5:09 PM   Subscribe

Respect describes a particular attitude toward another person, and not a feeling as such. It's still often used as a modifier for an emotion, though, since attitudes can modify anything a person does. This makes it even harder to observe than emotions are. So, what is respect? What does it mean to respect someone, if I'm trying to ignore how I feel about them?

This question is inspired by some of the discussion around the Kim Jong Il obit thread, but isn't really about it.

I am aware of two common meanings for "respect," the less common being loosely synonymous with "consideration": when you give directions, for instance, you might tell someone to go north with respect to a highway and not the Earth's rotation. This can be applied to people as well, and here it overlaps with the other meaning somewhat. When you make plans with respect to another person, it means you're taking their needs into account while making your plans, and at least trying to avoid getting in their way.

The more common meaning is the one I find problematic. It's something close to "esteem" but not quite. It assumes not just that you're taking someone's needs into account, but that you're doing so because you agree with those needs in some sense. Perhaps a moral sense, you could say? You think they are worthy and appropriate needs.

Both kinds of respect can be given to someone you hate, but they work in the opposite direction from hatred, so it's difficult to respect a hated enemy very much without suffering cognitive dissonance.

I think.

Perhaps you have a better explanation.
posted by LogicalDash to Religion & Philosophy (17 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I'm....not quite sure what your question is, but I think you're trying to get to a place where you can find a definition of "respect" that will not make you feel like you're being a doormat or overly-permissive.

I think it's a matter of accepting, first, that every human being has two things:

1. The right to make their own minds up about things, and
2. People who love them.

In the case of the Kim Jong Il threads and "you should respect the dead" complaints: it's more the second definition that's coming into play. Some people can be real assholes and jerks -- but odds are, SOMEONE out in the world likes them. Family members, probably. Even in the case of a dysfunctional family -- a death still leaves a loss, even if it's just "hope that things can eventually someday work out."

So - no matter who you're talking about, someone is grieving over that person's death, no matter how much of an asshole they are. Someone is sorting over some complicated, difficult feelings in the wake of that asshole's death. And that person seeing others all "yeeee-hawwwwww yippee" would be really painful. Not that I literally think Kim's family is coming in here and reading this -- but that's just not a good habit to get into, is all.

As for occasions where you'd want to respect someone living -- it's more the first definition that comes into play. Every person ultimately has the final say in what they think, what they believe, what they do; and whatever the choices they make, no matter how crazy they look to you, have an inherant logic TO THEM, that makes just as much sense as your own choices make to you. You would not like being insulted or attacked for your choices any more than they would like being attacked for theirs. Questioning someone's choices, challenging them, is different - that's more of an investigative, "wait, how did you come to the conclusion you did?" sort of approach. It's kind of like human-relations algebra -- you're solving the equation that allows them to think "A = opposing welfare," for instance. If you talk to them, ask them questions and challenge them on some of their points, but are OPEN to what they're saying, then you'd get to a point where you 'd think, "oh, okay, so they had a family dynamic where they felt someone else in the family was always getting bailed out while they were shafted. I can see why they aren't too fond of people getting handouts. Granted, I don't agree, but I understand why they think the way they do, it's not just arbitrary."

The thing is: if you respect where someone's ideas are coming from, even if you disagree with the ideas themselves, they will be much more likely to examine their own beliefs, and entertain the idea of changing their minds - because they know you accept their inherant brains and individuality itself. Whereas, if you don't respect them -- "oh, you're in the Tea Party, you must be STUPID" -- they'll be that much less likely to listen. ("They think I'm STUPID? Fuck that.")

THAT is a way to respect the people you hate -- assuming that whatever they believe, that there is a reason for that belief that makes perfect sense to them. You still can discuss the foundation for that belief, examine it with them, or what have you, but accepting that they have their own motivations and desires and past experiences that make them unique, and that those experiences are valuable in shaping who they are, is how you respect them.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:35 PM on December 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

Are you asking, how can one respect a person without feeling positive feelings toward them? I didn't like Bush, but if I met him I would be polite and use his honorific (President Bush), and generally defer from outlining for him all the things I didn't like. In doing that, I respect him while not liking him. It's deference (respect) to his position as a US President.

Or is that not what you meant?
posted by Houstonian at 5:37 PM on December 19, 2011

I think there is a difference between treating someone with respect and feeling respect for someone. I might treat my boss with respect even though I hate them. But I wouldn't feel respect for them. A good leader who I find admirable and honourable, however, I would feel respect for.

So in that sense, at least, I would say that there is an emotional component to the idea of respect.
posted by Nightman at 5:38 PM on December 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you respect someone, it means you are aware that there is something about them that is praiseworthy and worthwhile. It doesn't necessarily mean they are exceptional, however.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:51 PM on December 19, 2011

I'm asking for a better definition of respect than the ones I've given. I think I pointed own the flaws in the definitions pretty well but I can clarify if needed.
posted by LogicalDash at 5:55 PM on December 19, 2011

Actually I am having trouble even identifying a second definition in your post, let alone the criticisms. It might help if you formatted that a little more formally. Can't you start from a dictionary definition and state your disagreements with that? Here is one.
posted by jacalata at 6:09 PM on December 19, 2011

2. relation or reference: inquiries with respect to a route.
3. esteem for or a sense of the worth or excellence of a person, a personal quality or ability, or something considered as a manifestation of a personal quality or ability: I have great respect for her judgment.
#3 as written seems to preclude respecting people you hate. I don't think that's right.

I suppose it's possible that people who think that all living beings deserve some respect mean this definition
4. deference to a right, privilege, privileged position, or someone or something considered to have certain rights or privileges; proper acceptance or courtesy; acknowledgment: respect for a suspect's right to counsel; to show respect for the flag; respect for the elderly.
but they usually don't specify any particular right. In the case of the Jong Il thread(s) the guy is dead and I suppose they might mean that one should not speak ill of the dead, and therefore dead people have a right to not be spoken ill of... but that seems a stretch.
posted by LogicalDash at 6:14 PM on December 19, 2011

Well, do you know Kantianism? The basic idea behind Kantianism is that persons deserve to be respected. For Kant, persons are rational, autonomous agents--to respect a person is to appreciate the fact that they are rational and able to make choices. One way to spell this out is as follows: never involve another person in a scheme of action to which they could not in principle consent. So, you can't lie to people in order to get what you want--why? Because if you told a person, "I'm going to say X when Y is actually true because, if you believe X, you'll do what I want," you would be making use of their general capacity to make choices without actually giving them the opportunity to make a genuine choice.

This means that, for Kantianism, the "particular rights" being observed have to do with their capacities to make choices and not abusing those capacities. These are capacities that every person (by definition) has.. So, according to Kantianism, even the most despicable, horrible, hatred-worthy persons are still worthy of respect insofar as they are persons. It's contentious, however, what exactly Kantianism implies about duties to the dead.
posted by meese at 6:44 PM on December 19, 2011

It seems to me that the opposite of the kind of respect you're talking about is contempt. Which is generally a pretty poisonous emotion, in that it hinders communication and distorts perception, and probably one that is better avoided.

I can't think of a way to word the definition at the moment, but maybe having the opposite defined helps?
posted by restless_nomad at 6:45 PM on December 19, 2011

Well, maybe. I suspect I may have made a mistake by picking "everyone deserves respect" as a case example. The ambiguity there goes beyond the problems in defining respect and into what, exactly, should be respected about every single person; which in turn requires me to find out what, exactly, every person might have in common, so that I can respect it in everyone.

Basically I have a hard time parsing platitudes no matter what.
posted by LogicalDash at 6:51 PM on December 19, 2011

3. esteem for or a sense of the worth or excellence of a person, a personal quality or ability, or something considered as a manifestation of a personal quality or ability: I have great respect for her judgment.

#3 as written seems to preclude respecting people you hate. I don't think that's right.

Example: I personally can't stand the current Canadian Prime Minister. I think his policies are abhorrent. I do nonetheless give a nod of respect to his ability to use his evil genius to get those policies through and still maintain a good standing in the polls. I loathe the way he picks hot button issues that distract people from actual policy needs, but (grudgingly) respect his ability to play politics like a finely tuned violin.

Mind, I probably wouldn't say that I hate Stephen Harper. For me, hatred is all about about being consumed by emotion, and my feelings towards him are based more on logic and opinion. However, I can seriously and deeply oppose someone, but still have some respect for them.
posted by looli at 7:42 PM on December 19, 2011

I think the second kind of respect is more decorum than emotion. You're not respecting them as an emotional being or what they represent. You're respecting them because it is polite to maintain the rules of good social conduct.

Using the political examples other posters have given, perhaps they're introduced to this Politician They Don't Like at a swanky party. Even if you loathe him, it's considered socially polite to use whatever honorifics they go by, discuss whatever is appropriate to discuss, and otherwise conduct yourself in a socially polite position around them, even if you hate them. That's not to say you agree with them, if public policy or whatever comes up, you can enter the discussion, but it means if you see Stephen Harper/George W. Bush/Darth Vader, you don't start insulting them, you don't start berating them, you don't start yelling about positions of theirs, you don't throw a drink in their face even if you think they really, really deserve it for Canadian things/Where's the WMDs?!/Alderaan.

Or to pick the Kim Jong Il example, a human being is dead and it is socially disrespectful (usually) to mock someone that recently died, not because you agree with them or value them as a person, but just as a matter of etiquette when people are mourning. Obviously, this may vary some with the perceived loathsomeness of the individual. Basically, (to take this to an absurd end) if you're introduced to Hitler at a party and you throw your drink in his face, in a social sense you're The Bad Guy for breaking social codes even if he is A Bad Guy for being Hitler.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 8:10 PM on December 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

With Kim Jong Il, I think people are appealing to the second explanation of the 4th definition: proper acceptance or courtesy.

It is a proper (commonly-held) courtesy to not speak ill of the dead. It's been an idea since at least the 6th century BCE. The reasons it is a commonly-held courtesy vary:
- The dead cannot respond to accusations or slander. It is a courtesy to allow people to respond to accusations against them.
- The living who grieve the dead are hurt by it. It is not nice to hurt others.
- It is uncharitable. The better path is to work toward forgiving others of their failings.
- You would not want others to do that to you. This is a take on the Golden Rule.
- Superstitions and fear. Ghosts will attack you in retribution, and things like that.

"Respect for the dead" is "have good manners." It's the same reason you don't piss on a grave, rob a grave, or desecrate the dead: it's just not done. It's one of the mores we have adopted so that we can all get along. Possibly, the people who argue against this are expressing this idea: "I am so outraged that I will show it by breaking mores! I will break our agreed-upon manners to draw attention to the outrageousness of this thing/person/idea!"
posted by Houstonian at 8:23 PM on December 19, 2011

Simon Blackburn's Religion and respect examines this a bit:
‘Respect’, of course is a tricky term. I may respect your gardening by just letting you get on with it. Or, I may respect it by admiring it and regarding it as a superior way to garden. The word seems to span a spectrum from simply not interfering, passing by on the other side, through admiration, right up to reverence and deference. This makes it uniquely well-placed for ideological purposes. People may start out by insisting on respect in the minimal sense, and in a generally liberal world they may not find it too difficult to obtain it. But then what we might call respect creep sets in, where the request for minimal toleration turns into a demand for more substantial respect, such as fellowfeeling, or esteem, and finally deference and reverence. In the limit, unless you let me take over your mind and your life, you are not showing proper respect for my religious or ideological convictions.

We can respect, in the minimal sense of tolerating, those who hold false beliefs. We can pass by on the other side. We need not be concerned to change them, and in a liberal society we do not seek to suppress them or silence them. But once we are convinced that a belief is false, or even just that it is irrational, we cannot respect in any thicker sense those who hold it—not on account of their holding it. We may respect them for all sorts of other qualities, but not that one. We would prefer them to change their minds. Or, if it is to our advantage that they have false beliefs, as in a game of poker, and we am poised to profit from them, we may be wickedly pleased that they are taken in. But that is not a symptom of special substantial respect, but quite the reverse. It is one up to us, and one down to them.
posted by pw201 at 3:53 AM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Respect means you treat someone as a human being, whether you think they deserve it or not.

It means, among other things, not answering evil with evil. Not insulting people more than strictly necessary.

For example, if someone invites me to a party and I really don't like them, or I disapprove of something about them, all I have to say is "thank you, but I won't be able to attend."

Here are some examples of disrespectful ways to respond: accept the invitation and complain to mutual acquaintances that they're forcing me to go to their stupid party; accept the invitation and not show up; tell them to shove their invitation; show up and deliberately spoil the atmosphere by acting like an ass; say I'll get back to them and then make a conspicuous display of having more fun things to do with more popular people; or just ignore the invitation completely.

Notice that by taking the polite option and just saying "thanks but no thanks" I haven't changed my attitude towards them at all. I don't feel any better or worse towards the person. I might feel neutral towards them or even like them, but just not be keen on that particular activity. Or I might actively loathe them and feel revulsion whenever I think of them. If I think I want to avoid this person permanently, that's what I do. If I have a problem with them that I think can be worked out, I find a way of working it out separately and I don't use their kind gesture (inviting me to a party) as a vehicle for rubbing my discontent in their face. Also, if I like them, I don't do anything like ignoring the invitation/not showing up that might make them feel less liked - I just say yes or no and then show up according to what I said I'd do.

You can have a low opinion of someone and still treat them respectfully, and you can really like a person and still treat them disrespectfully. In order to be consistently respectful towards people, you have to take a principled stance and not let your feelings or whims run the show.
posted by tel3path at 4:01 AM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

In the case of the recently dead, I think admonitions to behave "respectfully" really refer not to one's attitude to the dead person, but to the sacredness of death itself. It's respect for the customs and myths that the culture has around death, not for the person.
posted by stebulus at 10:04 AM on December 20, 2011

In the case of "respect for the dead", contrast these two statements:

Ask not for whom the bell tolls: it tolls for thee.


Screw you, you dead bastard, serves you right!

The first has an aspect of loving your neighbour as yourself, combined with a nuance of pride going before a fall.

The second, not so much.
posted by tel3path at 2:11 PM on December 20, 2011

« Older Late 1800s architecture terminology question   |   thoughts on partial denture vs. bridge... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.