Some thoughts on the idea of ‘respect’

by The Editor

ARTICLE: South Africa is obsessed with the idea of ‘respect’. Constantly we read about the need for various things – from culture through to our attitude to certain positions – to be ‘respected’. But respect must be earned, it cannot be enforced or demanded. And that requires behaviour which is worthy of respect in the first place. In the article below I look at the relationship between respect and deference, and between deference and nationalism in turn.

Some thoughts on the idea of ‘respect’

By: Gareth van Onselen

10 May 2012

Respect is admiration, to be cultivated and earned. Deference is acquiescence, to be enforced or surrendered. As an attitude, it is often assumed that both ‘respect’ and ‘deference’ occupy positions on the same spectrum. This is wrong. Each is an idea in and of itself, and while the latter may be brought into existence as a consequence of the former, the opposite can never be said to hold true.

Those that imply the two are related usually crave the affirmation associated with respect but, unable to command it, pursue deference instead – a temporary fix for a permanent pang. Acutely self aware of the personal void they must fill, every action is gauged against their self worth; every word a test of ‘respect’ for their reputation. And much of their energy is spent on its acquisition. As such, respect is used as a veneer, a useful euphemism, to give their insecurity a democratic sheen.

As it is required and not acquired, deference is unconditional and unquestioning; entirely unrelated to one’s virtues or attributes. It is a condition fostered by those who feed off its false sense of esteem. And that emotional impulse can never be fully satisfied; for low self esteem is rarely appeased and the more one seeks out obsequiousness, like a drug, the more one needs of it to feel secure.

For this reason those that demand respect will never get what they desire, for it is in the demanding itself that they indulge their real need. They assume the opinion – the respect that they want – is merely a consequence of their insistence. And that is to profoundly misunderstand respect’s nature.

Unlike deference, respect is dependent on various things, none of them fixed and many subjective. Often it is beyond one’s immediate control. Its power resides in the fact that those who command it are largely oblivious to its existence and so better focus their energy elsewhere. Respect is a by-product of other things. Thus, deference can be legislated for, but respect cannot.

It is no coincidence that societies in which nationalism is entrenched devote much time to ‘respect’, its ostensible nature and purpose; for both nationalism and the desire for deference are a response to fear and low self esteem. Deference is the emotional infrastructure around which nationalism is built, just as insecurity underpins fear, and both produce an over-emphasis on authority and control. If unaddressed, and allowed to take root, an entire society can become excessively deferential, for self doubt spreads like an infectious disease.

A healthy society, like a healthy individual, goes about its business secure in the knowledge that its purpose is justifiable.

For an unhealthy society, that relentless thirst for affirmation manifests in a myriad ways. One such way is for those in power deliberately to conflate institutions with individuals. Because the former comes with a desirable reputation that often precedes the latter’s appointment to it; and so the two are artificially merged into a virtuous union.

The institution is used as a front, to shield the individual from interrogation, and the values that define its nature transposed onto the person who occupies its’ office. But this is profoundly undemocratic, for the very purpose of any public office is to represent an ideal, towards which an officer bearer should aspire, and not vice versa.

Those that fail to understand this, fail to understand too that an institution can never be tainted if the society in which it exists understands and upholds the principles on which it is founded. Only the individual can fall short of this mark.

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