Respect, Privilege, and Pluralism

Recently I wrote about honor and humility as personal values. I want to speak of the combination of these values, Respect, as a civic virtue. To demonstrate respect is to show regard for, consideration of, and esteem for another person and their way of being. At its most basic, treating someone with respect is to communicate through actions a sense of worthiness, validity, and self-authority. When respect informs my behavior toward myself or others, everything seems to run more smoothly. Disagreements are conducted honorably with mutual regard, praise is offered and received graciously, and help is offered appropriately and accepted with gratitude. Respect is a value that I am working to include in more of my life and one I think is the bedrock of a civil society and badly needed in a pluralist one.

Disrespect begins when we stop thinking of the other person as having value or being capable of making their own decisions. Disrespect is not exclusive to privilege, but I think, with our culture’s attitude toward inequality and cultural difference, disrespect is often systematically woven into our interactions. These interactions are known as “microaggressions,” conveying the small-scale yet pervasive experience for people on the receiving end, resulting in a near-daily experience of stress from having to defend against or calculate whether one is being insulted or demeaned in some way. This is not to say that people without privilege are never disrespectful, but these folks cannot get away with disrespect to nearly the extent that privileged people do. In some ways it is unthinkable, about which more below. The privileged expect the oppressed to live up to inhuman standards; to cope with the consequences of systematic oppression and almost daily insults with a gracious, good-hearted effort to educate and uplift. Activism that brings attention to this is attacked as being irrational, histrionic, silly, or irrelevant.

Disrespect looks like continuing to call a transperson by the wrong pronoun when you have been informed of the preferred pronoun. Disrespect looks like complaining that you are being asked to even exert this mental effort to change pronouns for a transperson, especially if you do not similarly complain of all your acquaintances who might have changed their names after marriage or stopped using a nickname. Calling someone by the name they prefer is one of the most basic and everyday habits of respect and civilty, and thus one of the most important. Those of us with the privilege of never having needed to question or change our genders lack appreciation for the importance of this; it may seem like a precious or irritating request to use unfamiliar pronouns, and often the tendency is to minimize the problem as unimportant or go on a rant about how irrational it is to change language and ask people to change with you, as though language has ever been stable.

Disrespect looks like telling a person who identifies as gay, “You don’t act gay,” or a person who identifies as Black, “You don’t act Black,” and so forth.

Disrespect looks like insisting on telling a person how to solve their problems when they did not ask for help. Disrespect looks like ignoring a person’s specific request for help and giving them something else instead. In both of these instances, I am assuming I know better than the other person what they need and acting accordingly. I can certainly put limits on what kind of help I am willing to offer, or express my thoughts on what might be useful to the other person, and still respect the other person’s autonomy and self-insight. I find most people are more willing to listen when you treat them with respect.

Disrespect looks like using racial or ethnic slurs and then complaining when others complain. There is a thread in our culture, particularly among people on the Internet, that somehow each of us should have the right to behave as disrespectfully as we wish without being criticized or asked to change. This prioritizes my short-term comfort of not needing to change or exert any effort to grow over the discomfort and pain I’m causing to those who are asking me to show respect. This erodes civil conversation and undermines our ability as a society to listen to each other and work together through our differences. Disrespect looks like refusing to consider another’s efforts to be in good faith and focus instead on my own discomfort, irritation, or opinions.

Imagine being a married heterosexual person introducing your partner to a coworker. For example, “This is Helene, my wife.”

Later in the week, imagine your coworker says, “I’m glad I got to meet your girlfriend the other night.”

Would this ever happen? If this happened, would the married person excuse it or consider it just a confused lapse? Would the married person correct the stranger?

“Actually, she is my wife. We’re married.”

“Oh, gosh, you can’t expect me to keep track of what kind of relationship you’re in.” Again, would this be considered an acceptable statement? Would it not seem a little rude or disrespectful to how the married couple identify their relationship? And would it ever happen in real life to a heterosexual married couple? Because it certainly does happen to non-heterosexual partnerships.

There is so much railing against the “PC culture gone overboard” when any change is asked of the privileged group to be more inclusive and accepting of a group that wants to be treated with respect instead of being constantly ridiculed, marginalized, and ignored. Instead of trying to listen, there is criticism and ridicule of the way the group asks, or what they want, or how weird they are, all of which underscores the reality of disrespect.

I wonder how much of this comes from the privileged group’s desire to think of itself (individually and collectively) as good. Sensitive to any criticism that exposes the lack of equality and respect, the group instead shuts down the feedback with ridicule, insults, or self-important diatribes. If the Internet is any indicator, there seems to be particular sensitivity when it comes to the kinds of things that give us pleasure, like humor and entertainment. To find out that something that brings us joy causes someone else harm can be distressing, and I think there is a concern that the dominant group will have to give up everything it likes to adjust to the shifting culture.

It’s true that we can’t please everyone, and sometimes we can fall into patterns that end up being alienating and hurtful. I enjoy jokes and entertainment that I also recognize is problematic, and sometimes I get called out in a way that leaves me feeling defensive and hurt. Sometimes that is simply the price of living in a pluralistic society, recognizing that there are no social rules written in stone and we have to be adaptive in order to show respect. When we receive criticism, we could use this to grow. We could get rid of the tired, dehumanizing jokes and come up with fresh material. We could learn more about ourselves and the people around us. We could make room for a civil society.