Respect Must Be Earned, Not Demanded

The word “respect” is vastly over-used these days. “Respect your elders!” “Respect the religious beliefs of others!” “Respect women!” To that I say: You can’t make me.

Respect is not something that can be demanded and certainly not something that any reasonable person should afford others just because of their age, sex or religious beliefs. Respect is not a decision, it is involuntary. You cannot decide whether you respect someone. Respect, unlike obedience, cannot be forced, it can only be given freely.

Different people have different criteria for respecting others. I respect things like achievements, intelligence, competence, decency, and courage. If you are a peaceful and productive member of society, I will respect you. If you are intelligent and educated, I will respect you. If you are willing to stand up for your own beliefs even when they are unpopular and at the same time are willing to critically re-examine your beliefs in the light of new evidence and admit when you’re wrong, I will respect you.

If you demand respect from others, I will respect you less. I may show you respect if you are in a position to harm me if I don’t, but showing respect is very different from having respect. If you demand respect for others, I will respect you less. If you are a mindless advocate of the status quo and popular opinion, I will respect you less. If you are a mindless opponent of the status quo and whatever is popular, I will respect you less.

I have no special respect for the elderly. They merely happened to be born a long time ago and have managed not to die yet, which is not a feat worthy of respect. Maybe becoming extremely old can be considered an achievement, but by itself it isn’t useful to anyone else if you haven’t done anything useful with your life. What matters is achievements, not age. Achievements may be positively correlated with age, but Albert Einstein had achieved more at age 26 than a hundred average centenarian in their entire lives put together and so deserves much greater respect.

I don’t much care what religious beliefs you hold, but if you use those beliefs as a justification for cutting the genitals of infants, for persecuting homosexuals, for terrorism, or for war, my respect for you will rapidly diminish. Women get the same base level of respect from me that men do, which is none at all. Lacking a Y-chromosome is no more an achievement than having one.

Respect is not to be confused with tolerance. I tolerate all the groups of people mentioned above, which means I won’t throw rocks at them (unless they throw rocks at me first). Tolerance is of utmost importance and should be expected for yourself and for others. Tolerance should be afforded to any peaceful person, but we need to keep in mind that tolerance is quite limited. Just because I tolerate certain beliefs does not mean I approve of them or that I won’t attack them verbally and through other non-violent means. I think it is important that we all remind ourselves of that distinction.

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