On Respect

We talk a lot about ‘dignity and respect’ these days, and large organisations usually have ‘dignity and respect’ policies that seek to regulate conduct among staff in regard to things such as harassment and bullying.  For instance, the University of Edinburgh Dignity and Respect Policy states:

Integrity, collegiality and inclusivity are central to the University’s values. In accordance with these values the University is committed to providing an environment in which all members of the University community treat each other with dignity and respect, and where bullying, harassment and discrimination are known to be unacceptable.

One question that arises is—what’s the difference between these two terms, as they are so often run together?  Are they not almost synonyms?  Here is one way of answering this.  ‘Dignity’ indicates a basic worth we attribute to all human beings, as human beings (hence we often refer to ‘human dignity’).  In this regard, as individuals, we are all equal, of value, and deserving of a baseline of humane treatment.  ‘Respect’ on the other hand indicates recognition of achievements.  It has to be earned.  This can be in a specific practice, e.g. as an athlete, a musician, a manager, a business person.  But it can also be in regard to personal character, a sign of recognition of someone’s integrity, honesty, fair-dealing, good judgment, and so on. 

This also raises another question.  Such policies are also often linked to the problem of preventing discrimination against groups with protected characteristics.  However, the definitions I’ve just offered attach dignity and respect to specific persons, dignity equalising us in terms of our shared humanity, respect discriminating between us in terms of our variable qualities.  Significantly, they don’t apply to groups, such as races, ethnicities, religions, sexes, sexualities, genders, etc..  As everyone deserves dignity, by definition everyone within any group deserves dignity.  But groups themselves don’t have dignity.  On the other hand, groups are too internally varied to be collectively endowed with ‘respect’, or to be the basis on which we bestow respect on individuals.  And what would it mean to be respected for qualities that are largely contingent and accidental?  Would that be genuine respect?  Again, respect must be earned.  By extension we sometimes pay respect towards quasi-persons that perform in some arena—sports teams, companies, charities, and so on.  But the difference here is that these actually are constituted as artificial agents, designed to achieve things.

Everyone wants and needs dignity and respect.  We live in highly individualistic societies, in which people compete for respect, and opportunities to earn respect, apart from personal conduct, can be scarce, and maldistributed.  Some gain high public recognition for their achievements, others are less successful, and have to adjust the criteria by which they seek respect.  One footballer scores a winning goal in the world cup, and is admired for their accomplished career.  Another never really develops, is dropped from the squad, and must seek their respect as a decent business person and caring parent.  There are hazards for stable personal character in both paths.  One can gain respect for achievements, but then lose respect for matters of personal character, for one’s conduct towards others.  We often refer to ‘self-respect’, indicating a reciprocal relationship between the respect we receive from others, and how we regard ourselves.  However, it also indicates that there may be discrepancies between the respect bestowed on us by others, and our inner judgment of deservingness.  As a society, we probably over-value the first, public plaudits, and under-value the second, interpersonal respect, which is so basic to the maintenance of community (see Richard Sennett’s Respect, 2003). 

Another way to earn respect is to hold up under adversity, to prevail against the odds, to ‘not let them keep you down’.  Such perseverance shows character, not because of exceptional achievement under normal circumstances, but because of endurance under difficult circumstances.  However, this points towards another, more dubious way of seeking respect, in a world where personal respect is strongly desired, but opportunities to earn it are limited.  This is to over-represent one’s circumstances in terms of adversity, to make exaggerated claims to perseverance in the face of adversity, thus making normal achievements seem exceptional.  This can be done both through accounts of one’s personal circumstances and struggles, and by identifying categorically with groups generally understood to be collectively oppressed, regardless of one’s personal circumstances.

It seems to me that the current cultural propensity to value the role of the victim and find virtue especially in resistance to oppression, is at least partly driven by this dynamic.  It is a symptom of a somewhat desperate search for respect, that we are all subject to, in a world where respect, a basis of self-worth, is in short supply.  A few people try to achieve this by blatantly faking their own personal circumstances, but this is often found out (see Wilfred Reilly’s Hate Crime Hoax, 2019).  Most people are not this mendacious.  But the incentive must be strong to submerge one’s identity in that of a social group collectively defined as oppressed, and let that group membership serve as the evidence of one’s adversity, and the validation of one’s achievement.  To have to seek respect entirely on one’s own can be daunting.

The question is not whether there are any groups characterised by adversity—there obviously are (e.g. residents of impoverished neighbourhoods, citizens of cities under siege).  Here again, the respect such groups may earn as groups, has to do with the specificity of their circumstances and their collective response to it.  The deeper questions are about when and how groups are defined as collectively existing under common circumstances of oppression, and why and how individuals choose to locate themselves in such groups.  I have tried to suggest that we should think of dignity and respect as pertaining to how we regard individual persons, not groups.  They pertain to our intrinsic value as humans, and our individual ability to earn the acceptance and admiration of our peers.  We diminish these principles when we confuse them with the dynamics by which societies allocate and struggle over group prestige. 

Published by jshearn

Professor of Political and Historical Sociology, University of Edinburgh.

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