During a recent dinner, my son asked whether we need to respect a person we think is bad. As he tends to do, he immediately answered his own question. He asserted such respect is due, and looked to us for proud approval.
Before I go any further, let me reassure you that our average dinner-time conversations focus on threats (directed at whoever is not eating their dinner) and jokes about animals (directed at approximating some type of engaging banter for all). If I had a nickel for every time my son probed the nuances of human interaction, I’d have a nickel.
Anyway, on this night, as he dined on a sliced peach and pasta, he was curious about the limits of respect.
His wide eyes looking up at us, my husband and I hesitated. We are trying to teach our children right from wrong, starting with the foundational mandate to be nice. Sometimes we illustrate what it means to be nice by talking about people who do not act or speak nicely. Then we confuse everything and say we need to be nice to everyone, even those not-nice people.
So, if we have to be nice to not-nice people, do we also have to respect not-nice people? Indeed, does being nice to someone necessarily mean treating them with respect?
My hair fluttered in the wind of my churning brain. I mentally outlined a long answer of rules and conditional exceptions to them. I wondered if I should try to come up with a riddle about ostriches as a diversion.
Then my mouth was moving and sounds were coming out of it.
“No,” I stammered. “You don’t have to respect people you think are bad. Respect is something a person has to earn. But you do have to be polite to everyone.”
My husband stared at me, seemingly in disbelief. I’m still working on not being offended at his signal that I surprised him with my insight.
Both children acted as if the distinction made sense. I’m still working on not being arrogant that I won that question so hard.
I think the distinction works, and not just to quiet inquisitive preschoolers. Respecting someone means that you admire them for who they are or what they’ve done. Being polite means behaving with civility.
It stands to reason, then, that respect is a currency that can grow or shrink, and sometimes not exist at all. We are entitled to our differences of opinion, so we are entitled to our differences of esteem. Those levels fluctuate in response to our perception of behavior.
I started idolizing Katharine Hepburn in high school. In her movies and all the books I read about her, she came across as self-sure but gracious, brave but humble. I respected her enough to consider her a role model.
Then I read about how challenging her personality became later in her life, and how biting her remarks could be. My disappointment diluted my respect.
Interestingly, respect can be afforded to more than just people. It can be afforded to institutions, movements, character traits and other intangibles. And sometimes, when a person does not match the intangible, it can impact our respect for him or her.
A pediatric surgeon who drinks on the job. A tabloid journalist who refuses to write about children. An Ivy League college that ignores sexual assaults on campus. The individual in the light of the institution can glow or cast a shadow.
The fluidity of respect seems fair. It’s a sentiment we can choose, like love or attraction. We do not owe it to anyone or everyone.
We must be universally polite, though. Even our enemies deserve our decency. We expect as much from them in return.
You can disagree with me. You cannot dehumanize me.
And so, we told our son, we can dislike people we think are mean, or rude, or dangerous. But we will not indulge our temptation to be impolite. We will show them basic courtesy, hope they follow our lead, and save our respect for when they do.
Now, finish your dinner.