Over the Holidays, as I was skimming through my Facebook feed, I came across a post that one of my cousins shared; it had the following quote:

“I don’t follow the “respect is earned” philosophy. I respect everyone automatically and then each person has the opportunity to lose my respect based on their behavior.”

As far as I can tell, this was originally posted on Twitter by an account called @TheWeirdWorld (a.k.a. “Shower Thoughts”) in June of 2018. It caught my attention as I was scrolling and paused to read it carefully.

I vehemently disagree with this statement, but before I explain myself, I believe that it’s important to review some definitions (because definitions matter!):

  • Respect: a feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements.
  • Civility: formal politeness and courtesy in behaviour or speech.
  • Civil: courteous and polite.
  • Earn: gain deservedly in return for one’s behaviour or achievements.

(All of these definitions are taken from the online Oxford Dictionary; in some cases, multiple definitions exist, but the most appropriate is taken for the context of this discussion.)

I really like this definition of respect, as it focuses on three important attributes: abilities, qualities, and achievements. That is why I find it absolutely inappropriate to blindly and automatically give respect to someone you know nothing about. How can I possibly have “deep admiration” for someone I’ve never met? Why would anyone assume that they should have my respect by default (the opposite is also true: why would I assume that anyone I meet should blindly respect me)? The sentiment expressed by the quote seems to me to be steeped in reverse logic, akin to paying an hourly wage worker a salary based on the maximum number of hours that he or she could work, and then taking back what they haven’t worked (here, I’ll pay you ahead of time for a forty hour week, but at the end of the week, if you’ve only worked 30 hours, I’ll take back the amount equivalent to 10 hours – in what universe would this possibly make sense?).

If we consider the definition of “earn” (again, in this context), it would seem to imply that the receiving party would have to “gain deservedly” my respect; not so, at least not in the sense that they should have to do anything to earn my respect. They don’t necessarily have to actively prove themselves to me – it will depend on who they already are. If, as I get to know them, their “abilities, qualities, or achievements” are in harmony with my framework, world view, philosophy, beliefs, intellectual pursuits or interests, etc., then my respect for them will grow. Conversely, however, if these conflict with my frames of reference in these areas (or others), then I cannot imagine how I can possibly give them my respect. At a very basic level, I may be completely neutral to who they are, in which case I may neither respect nor disrespect them; the alternative to be discussed in a bit. (My wife debated the above points, questioning what it is that constitutes my framework, world view, etc., as opposed to someone else’s; I claim that this would fall into the realm of morals and morality, influenced largely by the environment and culture I live in, a whole other topic of discussion.)

The question can be raised, however, about people you meet for the first time but know something about; for example, anyone who has been in the public eye for whatever reason. What if we already have a good inkling that this person has potentially met one or two of the three attributes described above, and that these at least appear to be compatible with our world view?

Well, in this case, I personally still would not blindly and automatically give 100% of my respect to them, but they also wouldn’t be starting at 0! Maybe 30%? 60%?

As an example, I’ll use the current Mayor of the small town I live in, located in Western Canada. His name is Jeff Genung. Before he ran for office, I had never heard of him (to be fair, I am fairly new to this town, having only lived here a couple of years; people who’ve lived here for a long time had heard of him, as he’d served on Council many years before). I learned that Jeff owned and operated a local business – a well-known coffee shop – and had done so for 16 years. To me, this already spoke about his “abilities” – running any business requires a certain set of abilities. He ran a good campaign, and won the Mayor’s office; running for public office at any level is a complicated and arduous task, and winning…well, that indicates “achievement”, doesn’t it? So, without ever having met Jeff, in my book he was already 2 out of 3; if I ever had the chance to meet with him, I would already have some amount of respect for him. 2 out of 3 would seem to indicate 66%, but it all depends on what the “abilities” and “achievements” are, I would think – what do we know about these attributes in relation to the person, how “great” do we know these abilities and achievements to be in comparison to similar people?

But there is also the attribute of “qualities” to consider, and that’s a big one. Sure, he was already rating pretty well on the two other attributes, but those do not necessarily speak of his character and “people skills”. It is always likely that you may be ready to give someone a lot of respect (let’s put it at 80%) based on the abilities and achievements you perceive them to have, butthen when you meet them in person, they are asinine jerks, and your respect plummets.

As it turns out, I eventuallydid have a reason to request a meeting with Jeff – after he became Mayor – to discuss an idea. He agreed to meet with me (open to meeting with citizens, there’s a good quality for a mayor), and so we met at his coffee shop. Jeff has a very special quality when he meets with people: he is 100% focused on whomever he is with and listens intently. Despite all the noise and the comings and goings of the coffee shop, his attention was all on me and what I was talking about. I have also seen him do this with other people; you just can’t intrude on this man’s focus unless you physically prod him! To me, that is a wonderful quality to have, especially for someone in office. In addition to this quality, he is also a gentleman. Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyways!), by the time my meeting with Jeff was over, my respect for him had grown immensely. He had earned it.

Now, when I say that he earned my respect, it’s important to note that Jeff didn’t have to do anything more to earn my respect; he didn’t have to prove himself. He just had to be himself. It was up to me to discover that he ranked high in all three attributes, at least on my personal scale, and that these were in accordance with my frames of reference.

The question has also been raised, specifically by younger people, that older people demand respect; this may have something to do with older people thinking that because they’ve lived longer, they have more “abilities, qualities, and achievements”. That may be so, but I still don’t subscribe to the idea that anyone has any right to blindly demand respect. Even older people can be absolute idiots; there’s just no age for that. And it raises other questions: what’s older? What does the gap need to be between young an old? At what age specifically do you feel that you should demand respect?

You can go ahead and blindly give your respect to anyone you meet, if that’s what you want, but for me, respect needs to follow consideration, thought, evaluation, and consideration. It’s not automatically given. It should be a valued human currency, not just cheaply given away.

What is the alternative, then? If we are not to freely give other people our respect, how do we conduct ourselves in relation to other people? What is it that we can and should give our fellow citizens?

I would argue that it is civility, that at a bare minimum, we can start by being civil towards each other. This can certainly mean different things to different people, based on social and family constructs, experiences, upbringing, education, etc., but I think we can essentially all agree on its basic forms. I have absolutely no problem with being civil towards people I meet for the first time; there is nothing to be “earned”, here. There is, of course, an assumption that the other person will show some civility towards me; it is entirely possible to meet someone who is mean-spirited and disagreeable, in which case they might not even warrant any civility (always best to get away and stay away from such people!).

I find it incomprehensible that some people think we should just give respect by default, when it appears that civility itself is a rare thing, these days. This is especially evident on social media, where people feel that it’s perfectly acceptable to spew out hatred, complain, accuse, shame, and otherwise denigrate others, all from the anonymous comfort of their keyboard. I often wonder, when I come across such posts, if the person would have the courage to confront the object of their scorn in person – would they really talk that way? Would they be that aggressive, mean, or accusatory? What does that say about the person’s “abilities, qualities, and achievements”? Especially “qualities”.

I’d like to think that civility is not dead; in hibernation, perhaps, but not dead. There are those days where I think maybe it’s even on life support, but thankfully these are few and far between. But I definitely think that we can wake it, that we can – and should – raise it back to its proper place in society; that we can re-introduce it into our daily interactions. Let’s start with that before we freely give or demand respect.

Be Civil First, and Then Offer Your Respect.