Dying of disrespect

Americans generally believe it is good not not care what other people think.

Saying “I don’t care what you think” is often seen as a sign of independence, toughness and spirit. We say it with a tone of pride, as if we have demonstrated a virtue. When we are bothered that someone thinks poorly of us, we scold ourselves for caring so much what others think. We shouldn’t care about that.

But not caring what others think is a formula of disrespect — almost its definition. Look at the etymology of re-spect: back + look. If I look at you and I see someone who looks back and sees me, I respect you. If I look at you and see something whose seeing is irrelevant, I disrespect you.

When we say someone has disrespected us, what we mean is that they have *demonstrated* disrespect. But the disrespect was there prior to the act, and the suspicion that we are not respected is profoundly alienating. The sin of disrespect is committed in the heart before it is committed with word or action.

I find this exaltation of disrespect alarming. I am alarmed not only because disrespect is painful to the disrespected and degrading to the disrespectful, but because the institutions most vital and essential to our way of life are all ones that depend on respect to function and flourish. How is it that a nation so utterly dependent on respect has embraced disrespect as admirable? Can we really adhere to an ethic of disrespect and hope to thrive as a nation?

If you doubt that our national institutions all assume and require respect, here is a list of some key examples:

  • Our market, at least when it functions properly, is a place where companies work to develop products and services that customers prefer over other possibilities. When competition gets fierce enough, companies will go to extreme lengths to figure out exactly how their customers see the world in order to do a better job of appealing to them. This is an extreme kind of respect.
  • Our democracy, when it functions properly, forces candidates to figure out what their constituents want from them and to explain to them how they intend to deliver results. The incumbents must demonstrate how they have delivered or explain persuasively why they did not deliver or risk being voted out of office. The candidates must care how their constituents think and what they think of them. In a healthy democracy, disrespect costs a politician their job.
  • Our judiciary system also requires persuasion. A lawyer attempting to persuade a jury of peers is by proxy attempting to persuade the public of the truth of her case. Again: respect.
  • Our legislative process, despite what so many Americans have come to think is a collaborative design process performed legislators of differing opinions. All design processes require extreme respect among collaborators, each of whom looks for novel resolutions to apparent obstacles which permit miraculous possibilities of alignment where before there was only mutual objection and frustration. But our public — who believe a good politician is one who already knows what is best, who grandstands on Uncompromising Principles, and obliterates opposition through sheer force of will, and who doesn’t care what anyone thinks of it — elects leaders who exemplify the disrespect ethic, effectively hurling human monkey-wrenches into our delicate political mechanisms. Is it any wonder things have stopped working in Washington? And it seems that many of us think the solution to this problem is to find new, even more potent forms of disrespect so overpowering that they can just sweep aside what remains and get things done autocratically in the manner of a sole proprietor of a private business, who calls all the shots, makes hard calls and… doesn’t have to care what anyone thinks about it. “My way or the highway.” (Where is the highway in a nation? Deportation? Jail?)

These are some of our key liberal-democratic institutions, but it is not even a complete list.

Can we  afford to continue to exalt disrespect? Is it possible America’s worst troubles are symptoms of disrespect? Are we perhaps even dying of disrespect?

And can an individual citizen do anything about this?

I think much of the damage is done individual-to-individual. Like it or not, when we converse with other people, we represent our political positions. When we show someone disrespect, we do so on behalf of who they think we represent. When you converse as a member of a political party, a religion, a race, a profession, a generation, a philosophy, a stance on some issue, or whatever — you represent a group. You become a concrete experience — a touch-point, as we call it in the design business — of something otherwise abstract and intangible. To represent your group is an enormous responsibility if you think about it.

If you are persuaded at all by what I am saying, you might want to meditate on three questions:

  1. How often do you catch yourself admiring disrespect?
  2. Have you reflected on whether disrespect is a good thing to admire?
  3. How many times a day do you feel or show disrespect, versus feel and show respect — especially to those who disagree with you?

I think this is the most important thing I have to say right now. Struggling with disrespect and overcoming it is more complex and difficult than it seems on its face — it is, in fact, a discipline on the order of religion — but simply questioning the ethic of disrespect is a crucial first step.

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