Only My Opinions

The Limits of Respect

Everyone wants some respect, from housewives through spiritual teachers right to the heads of states and many within their nations. The benefits then impel us to insist on being accorded respect even to a point of threatening to disrespect someone – beating them up or even denying them some form of happiness they need. But what does the concept of respect really mean and why is it so important whether it is accorded or denied to us?

To be respected carries with it some reputational values that enhance how other people regard us, which further enables us to interact with each other on the basis of familiarity and trust, and to collaborate in the pursuit of mutual happiness. The word ‘respect’ means so many things according to the different definitions in various dictionaries. Like any word in the dictionary, its meaning depends on the context in which it is used. However, whenever we demand respect from another person, the assumption is often that they already understand the context in which this respect is being demanded or could be accorded.

From how we apply the term in our everyday life, respect seems to mean ‘putting someone or something in their rightful place’ like, “Steven and Susan are names for boys and girls, respectively”. We could not say respective if the names were not in the same order as their accorded gender of “boys” and “girls”. Steven is a boy and Susan is a girl, in this example. “A gallant man accords respect to a woman by treating her as a lady”. In this case, treating the woman as a lady ‘puts’ her in ‘her right place’ as a lady. The lady might feel happy to be treated that way and the respect would be welcome. On the other hand, a policeman arrests a thief and puts him in jail. In that way, the thief is being respected by being put in jail, where ‘he belongs’, even though he might not agree with the decision, in which case the respect would be unwelcome and the thief would feel disrespected. We could think of so many examples of instances where we put any person or thing in their ‘rightful place’ because that is where we believe they belong, based on how they appear to us.

To put things where they belong is to assume that there is not only one place where everything belongs, but different place where each specific one belongs. To regard things or people as not belonging to the same place, implies some form of inequality, whether of their positions, places or states of being, which further implies different degrees of comparison from near to far; high to low; good and bad; right and wrong.

In order to be respected as a person, we need to be clearly identifiable by others – who do the respecting – so that they know who we are, which makes it easier for them to put us in what they believe are our ‘rightful’ places where, hopefully, we would also expect to be. It is our respecters’ way of avoiding a ‘misplacement’ or being confused with other things that they think we do not belong with. In that way, respect is something that others do to us, and it’s a matter of either agreeing or disagreeing with their judgement.

Identities created by concepts such as uniform; position; class; dignity; race; gender and nationality are some of the ways in which a person becomes identifiable to others, whereby to be identified as a gentleman or an elderly person would earn that person the rightful respect, provided they do not also exhibit another trait that may render them unworthy of that respect, in which case they would be accorded the negative respect of being directed to where it is believed people of that character should be.

To not be respected is a result of not being clearly identifiable to others as belonging in any specific place and making it difficult for them to place one accordingly. Having no social class; no association; belonging to no political party; with no friends; race or even an identifiable male or female gender, is generally regarded with more suspicion by other people, the same way someone would be regarded when wearing casual clothes at a formal occasion.

The problem with any form of ambiguity is because people do not trust what seems different from them – what they do not understand. This is the reason we are ever less comfortable with strangers than we are with our friends. The proverb, “Even a fool is considered wise if he remains silent” is a case in point. Having no identity is the same as having no opinion on a matter; a situation where we remain open to agree or disagree with what is being said later on when the reality of that situation is much clearer. This open mindedness is unwelcome in an environment where people are always rushed to take sides even when the options presented to them are not yet clear. The rush is a way of forcing them to identify with one side or another so that someone may declare victory or accept their loss. A person without a clear identity cannot be easily respected, solely because they make it difficult for others to know where, in the variety of all possible places, they should be placed, which makes it difficult to use them in situations where their own happiness is not considered.

Imagine meeting a stranger at a grocery store one Saturday and before long having a light-hearted and honest conversation on various matters of life. Then on Monday morning when we arrive at the office, we find that the stranger is actually our new boss. Logically we would be happy to have a person we could relate to so easily as our boss, but at the same time, there would be new considerations to make, such as ‘moving’ that person from the ‘social cubicle’ where we met them and could talk to them about anything, to another place – their rightful place – where we start to treat them as our boss. This often results in a limitation in the extent to which we could interact with them, which would likely even erode the quality of our interactions with them.

Each one of us is everyone in essence, but someone in a specific situation of life. Every human being is a vastness of possibilities, states of being, situations and roles, and no person is anything in particular, except only in a specific situation of life. One moment we play the role of a father, the next, an employee and then a passenger in someone’s car. Each of these roles demands that we employ certain abilities that would help us realise the harmony of playing that role. If we identify more with one of the roles we play, then our lives are mostly lived in that role and less in others.

Our need to be respected makes us want to assume certain roles by belonging to some groups with which to be identified. We settle for a specific role and use that as their defining identity, whereas some people identify with the totality of the roles that their humanity makes necessary in the various situations of life. The difference is between limitlessness and limitation, abundance and scarcity, respectively.

To identify ourselves with every role we have to play in life is to accept that various forms of happiness could be realised in the different situations of our lives. The more we embrace the different situations of our lives, the more we create various forms of happiness through which our lives are enriched. It is for that reason that to seek to be respected in life is to discard the broader roles that life demands we assume, in favour of some specific roles that we prefer to be identified with and accorded the respect thereof. In that way, to seek respect in life is to limit our lives.

Our happiness as people lies in our willingness to identify with everything that is necessary for our well-being. This means exploring more of ourselves, assuming different states of being and deriving forms of happiness that would not be possible if we settled in any specific ‘area’ of life. This means we have to assume the identities of more things than just any specific things in life, which effectively results in more possibilities of happiness, identity with all things and a general lack of identity to those who seek to respect us. A person who identifies with everything is never any one of those things but all of them which makes identity irrelevant. In that way, the wholeness of our humanity is in embracing those aspects of ourselves that are outside of our respected areas, of our comfort zones; outside of places where we are defined as this or that.

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