It’s been a while since my last English rant (nine months). In that time, I’ve been gestating a post about a particularly irritating word whose increasing frequency of use has been attended by a corresponding decrease in meaning: respect.
There’s been plenty said (and sung) about this word. Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” calls for her man to give her her “propers” when he gets home, i.e. the decency, kindness, and loving treatment due her (especially in exchange for her financial support). Not too much for a woman to ask of the man who lives off her largesse, is it?
Respect is defined by the late social psychologist Erich Fromm as one of three components which make up love (the others being care and responsibility). Fromm was the child of Orthodox Jewish parents, and as such, probably knew a thing or two about the command to love one’s fellow as oneself, how to honor parents, and to listen to one’s wife (even if she is soft-spoken).
Chazal (the Jewish sages) define respect for parents (kibud av v’em) as encompassing honor and reverence. Respect by children for their father includes a sense of awe, demonstrated by not sitting in his chair or calling him by his name, and honoring both parents entails a commitment to care for both parents in illness, need, or old age, either personally or through an agent. Respect here is not actually love; to command the children of cruel parents to love them is unrealistic and unfair. (Besides, the only being Jews are commanded to love is God, and even that is defined in ways that go well beyond emotion.) But to command a certain standard of behavior is deemed reasonable, and if your mother has taken a contract out on your life? You must still see to her care and maintenance, but you are not required to live near her.
Respect has traditionally been the main concern of young women when considering whether to have sex with an amorous suitor. “Will he respect me in the morning?” she asks herself. One of my favorite sketches by Nichols and May is of a pair of high school students parking their car in a secluded place. While Nichols’s hormones are clearly raging, May tries rationally to sort out her feelings and the possible consequences of giving in to her companion. When she asks how he might perceive her afterward, he assures her, “I would respect you LIKE CRAZY.”
Respect nowadays seems to be used all the time, for parents, government officials, clergy, the police, people with special needs, people of other cultural affiliations. In graduate school, I had a class full of aspiring schoolteachers who, in discussions led by a short-tempered education professor with a finely-tuned BS detector, would often use respect to describe how they would treat all of their students, regardless of background or ability. The teacher would become irritated any time he heard this word, would demand that the student rephrase her sentiment without using it, and soon forbade the word’s use in his class altogether. I remember wondering at his ire at the time, but I have since come to understand it better.
What is respect? Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary provides the relevant definition as “high or special regard: esteem” or “deference.” One must naturally accord one’s own parents this esteem and deference, at least in specific circumstances. But high or special regard seems a bit strong in relation to one’s students, especially if a student is indifferent towards his teachers, lazy, unkind to peers, or highly disruptive. Clearly, one’s attitude toward such a student should be put in other terms reflecting one’s recognition of the student’s humanity and uniqueness, while also expressing concern for the student’s problems, challenges, and behavior.
My sense, though, is that when most people nowadays use the word respect to talk about people different from themselves, what they are doing is describing an elevated form of tolerance or acceptance. To respect all cultures is not really to bestow esteem or high regard indiscriminately, especially if those cultures promote genocide, torture, conquest, war-mongering, or xenophobia. When I taught in a high school history department, a colleague told me about a conversation he’d had with the department chair in which she’d said she wanted those of us in the department to promote an attitude of “celebrating” all cultures and peoples. When he asked if that included celebrating Nazi Germany, she was brought up short. An attitude of blanket respect for all nations, cultures, peoples, or individuals else seems grossly overstated.
I’ve almost completely stopped using the term. If I say I respect something, I see some validity or value in it, while not necessarily agreeing with it or espousing it myself. If I don’t respect something, I think it is dishonest, myopic, delusional, or in some way invalid. Respect is used so willy-nilly nowadays, I feel a need to use more precise language to convey what I want to say. When I saw a Whitney Houston movie years ago in which her character yelled at her mother, then later apologized in another scene, I was stunned. “Mama, I’m sorry I disrespected you,” she said. Disrespect? I realize that’s Black speech, and probably means something quite specific in that community, but what I thought was what a gross understatement that was. Her behavior toward her mother had been coarse, rude, hurtful, and completely out of order, not “disrespectful.”
The worrying trend of overusing words until they lose all their meaning has, alas, infected this word also. I therefore hereby bury it with full honors, and a high regard for what it once meant.