Respect is an interesting idea-container of a word. It includes variations of meanings which have shifted in one generation.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T: It’s Multi-Faceted Meanings & How Knowing The Variations Can Save Your Life

# 92 on my 99 Life Tips–A List is: You should, respect a person (or not) based on 1- who they show themselves to be. But, you should respect authorities based on 2- what they can do to you. None can require you to respect the person in the uniform or office, refer to “1” for that.

I could not write this essay about respect without hearing Aretha belt out the spelling in that inimitable, soulful way of hers. I hope you’ll enjoy that earworm. If you belong to my generation, you will. If not, you’re already thinking, “huh?”

This is an essay about respect; its various meanings, its contextual application, and how knowing how to show respect appropriately can save your life.

Words are idea containers 

We need to think for a minute about what respect is and what it isn’t. Like Aretha, we spell it only one way. But we use it to mean many things. I won’t bore you with definitions except to say this about words: Words are idea containers.

When my firstborn was young — precocious, verbal child that she was — if she saw something she didn’t have the vocabulary for, she used a catch-all container, the word “pumen” (rhymes with lumen). Her word box contained everything from blackberries to motorcycles, from horses to Santa Claus. It was a large container. We grew used to her pointing at something and asking, “What’s that pumen?”

“Respect” tries too hard to contain too much

My story has a point. Which is that some words contain ideas so numerous and varied the containment stretches and tests the adequacy of the word to hold and convey them all.

The word “love” is a prime example. We use it to describe our feeling for bananas, baseball, and best friends.

With words such as love, like, hate, we come to understand that context plays a role helping the hearer or reader infer the speaker or writer’s intent. There is a broad range of meaning in these “over packed” words.

Respect is such a word. It is an over-packed, “try-hard” of a word attempting to do overmuch. It is the “pumen” of social lubricants and niceties. This gives it a wide spectrum of meaning. But not all the meanings are apropos for every usage. 

A variety of meanings to fit the contextual and cultural pendulum

There is a contextual and cultural pendulum when selecting the applicable meaning of respect. In my lifetime, the meaning of respect has swung from — “to acknowledge the right of,” or, “to regard” — to the current meaning (as used by my kid’s generation) in which it reflects an amalgamation of “esteem, high regard, acceptance, and approbation” (though my kids never use that actual word). So, the meaning of respect is rapidly accelerating to its farthest and highest meaning which is “deep admiration” and “the highest regard”.

And in some cultures respect has always meant “deep veneration” and “honor”, such as that respect shown to one’s elders, something we’ve never been good at in the U.S..

We see then, that the single word respect conveys a variety of meanings. It doesn’t mean the same thing to all people, even to those who speak the same language and share the same cultural heritage.

The Advice Reframed

I laid that groundwork in an essay about respect to serve as a footing upon which to discuss the advice I offered at the outset. 

When you read it again, notice how the meaning shifts. The ideas contained in the word respect change as the context changes.

Below, for clarity’s sake, I’ve reframed the advice offered in my tip.

Respect a person (or don’t respect them) based on:

1- Who they are in words and deeds.

2- The power they have (because of the office or job they fill) to mess with or take your life.

As stated, Respect is an interesting idea-container of a word. It includes variations of meanings which have shifted in one generation. In my youth, showing respect was simply to act with the deference of courtesy and politeness. It was akin to good manners. Respect had little to do with agreement or acceptance or esteem, except at the very highest levels where only the most deserving received it. In such cases, we substituted a better, more specialized word, more descriptive of feelings of esteem, admiration, and acclaim.

For example, I’ve never heard a fan say, “I really respect Jerry Garcia’s soloing.” Or, “I respect Mark Twain as a writer of short stories.” And no one would say, “I respect the way Mother Teresa cared for Calcutta’s poor.”

Because Respect and Admiration are different

To respect you is to offer you the opportunity to be heard, to voice your own opinion, to state your view and stake out a position. This fundamental level of respect comes with the territory inherent in the idea that we are equals. You are as entitled to your opinions as I am entitled to mine. I regard your right to speak for yourself and live the way you choose as valid rights. But… I am not required to admire the things you say or the lifestyle choices you make. I am not required to look to you as a role model. I may totally disrespect your choices, and you mine, while simultaneously respecting your right to make them.

So, I can respect your right to your opinions without respecting your opinions. I can listen to you and still not agree with you. Respect doesn’t mean I shelve my discernment, logic, learning, or personal biases and views and adopt yours. Respect is not acquiescence, or agreement, or approbation.

The Respect of 2 Ideological Opponents

The story is told of the friendship of the late Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. These two were figurehead iconoclasts of vastly different political and judicial ideologies, yet remained friends until Scalia’s death. Before his passing, someone once asked Scalia, the strict constructionist conservative, about his friendship with Ginsberg, the vaunted liberal feminist. The questioner expressed incredulity about the basis of such a cordial relationship when their political and judicial views were so diametrically opposed.

Scalia quipped, “I attack ideas, not people.”

If I could write that into my next thousand stories, I would.

We do well to remember and practice those sage words. Respect for the other person is the contextual framework that allows that to happen. Scalia respected Ginsberg. She respected him. I respect them both, nay; I admire them both, for showing each other such deferential respect for the right to their own views and opinions, even when they didn’t share or admire the views expressed.

How the meaning has shifted

In my kid’s generation, the so called Gen X through Z, the meaning of respect has steadily swung towards the esteem side of the pendulum. If I disagree with the viewpoint of my youngest kids, they will often accuse me of being “disrespectful”, or worse, “rude” (which seems to be one of the worst character flaws you can display to members of the generations at the end of the alphabet).

I’m sure the shift in meaning is because of mistaken ideas of Self-Esteem propagated in public educational environments. We commonly treat self-esteem as an entitlement to be granted to all as a participation trophy, rather than as the internal esteem one earns and holds for oneself because of one’s character (virtue). The word “self” in the phrase “self-esteem” is a dead giveaway that this esteem must come from within. No one can give it to you. Esteem conferred from without we should call by some other name.

I can respect the right of a student to come to class, or to skip class. I can respect their right to learn up to their ability, or to shun the effort required to learn. But I do not esteem anyone who skips class or who does not better themselves when granted a free opportunity to do so. What is estimable about that?

Thus, respect is not esteem, though the highest end of the respect-definition-spectrum does include the concept.

Numbers 1 and 2 unpacked — This could save your life

My advice in #1 above relates to this higher end of the spectrum. Admirable character, words, and deeds must earn the highest meaning of the word respect. To none but the worthy do we entitle this usage. We reserve it for the deserving because it conveys the sense of appreciation, approval, acknowledgement of worthiness, etc.. We don’t grant it lightly, denigrating and trivializing it into a meaningless entitlement to all comers, regardless of character, expertise, or worthiness.

The admonition in number 2 of my advice, if heeded, can save you a lot of needless heartache, and possibly even save your life.

I have in mind here those persons acting in an official capacity who have both authority and power to interfere with your personal freedom or life, in extremis. They can take either, or both. In an essay about respect, I would be remiss not to warn you to respect that power. Together we can pray and work to see the end of that power being abused and mis-used. Regrettably, that day remains in the future.

We have all seen the horrifying and gut-wrenching examples of unscrupulous, even murderous, thugs (for there is no better idea container for them), dressed in uniforms and armed with badges, batons, billy clubs, and guns, who deserve no more esteem, admiration, acclaim, approval, or acceptance than a sociopathic criminal deserves. Their lack of character, lack of ethical behavior, lack of morality, lack of humanity all stand as accusers at the bar of justice, and we all want them to receive the just recompense of the crimes they’ve committed while clothed in the uniform and trappings of state authority.

When in doubt, focus on the uniform, not the person

Still, if a uniformed authority figure accosts you, you do well to respect the uniform for the power the wearer has to alter forever, or even to end, your life. It is shamefully true that some have shown this basic deference and respect for the uniform, if not for the person wearing it, and still had their lives taken away by a uniform wearing murderer. But it is wise to respect the power behind that uniform. It is wise to acknowledge the authority that created that position. It is important to remember that the authority that created the position also armed them with a weapon that if used, whether in righteousness or murder, can make you just as dead either way.

So while, because of unworthiness of moral character, we may feel utter contempt, disdain, and disgust for the politician, or judge, or cop, or soldier who wields social or political or judicial power, we’d best respect the power. We can reach in the container of respect and at least come up with the sense of acknowledgement, understanding, and regard for what the uniform or office represents, even if we wouldn’t waste saliva to spit on the person occupying it. For the person wearing the uniform or occupying the office to receive more than base level respect, they will have to do so by earning it.

The Takeaway — A Respectable Purpose

But let’s turn away from uniformed persons, or officeholders, and other authority figures and end this essay about respect thinking about ourselves. If you want my respect, I stand ready to give it to you. I want nothing more than to have a role model to admire, a mind I can glean from, an example to be inspired by. Go for it. I will respect you to the fullest meaning. But I won’t hand you that just for sitting there breathing. Nor do I expect it from you. I aim to earn your respect. I want to earn it first as a person. No rotten tree can bear good fruit

So, first I strive to be a person whose life and character are respectable. From that kind of life, I hope will flow opinions and ideas that will induce more respect. Do I hope to win your admiration and acclaim? Yes, yes I do. I hope that my presence on this planet enriches you and creates good things in your life. And I hope that your life will create good things for me. There’s no more respectable purpose, is there?

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