One of my favorite old George Carlin bits was his close-reading/rewriting of the Ten Commandments. The whole routine is widely available as both text and video online but in particular, he says something about the instruction to “Honor thy Father and Mother” which I’ve always appreciated as simply a truth of life that is rarely taught:
Obedience, respect for authority. Just another name for controlling people. The truth is that obedience and respect shouldn’t be automatic. They should be earned and based on the parent’s performance—PARENTS’ PERFORMANCE. Some parents deserve respect; most of them don’t. Period.
Regardless of what one believes of Carlin or the Ten Commandments, the idea that respect should not be given blindly is a realization that I’ve always felt is inextricably bound to one’s maturing process.
As a child, I would hear that I needed to respect my elders even when one of my elders was spouting abject nonsense. As an adult with some experience in both sociopolitical debate and academics, I’m often told that I need to give respect to every single beliefs that I encounter.
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I agree that there are acts of respect that any person should be able to reasonably expect.
A short, though by no means all-inclusive list includes:
- Consent to physical contact—do not touch anyone’s body, sexually or otherwise, without their clear consent. We can allow some degree of intelligent wiggle room on these ideas. No one screams accusations at my partner should she embrace me in a moment of affection without explicitly asking if it’s alright—though it’s worth stating that if I were to ask her to cease and she refuses, that would be a very different matter.
- Use of selected terminology—if someone gives you a preferred name or gender designation, use it. This goes for using Bob when someone named Robert asks for it just as it goes for using “they” when someone says it’s their preferred pronoun. It’s not great to misname or misgender people who have articulated preferences, but the protocol after doing so is simply to “apologize quickly and sincerely, then move on [because t]he bigger deal you make out of the situation, the more uncomfortable it is for everyone.” It’s often a matter of making a genuine effort. If someone makes the effort, it normally isn’t much of a problem. If they get frustrated or belligerent with the person they misidentified, then the source of the issue is equally easy to notice.
- General autonomy—if someone has, does, believes, or is something that doesn’t jive with the way you live your life, and it doesn’t negatively impact you or others, leave the subject alone.
As conversations about consent culture and identity become more frequent and nuanced, those first two seem to be on a definite upswing. More people really seem to understand those boundaries and are willing to accept them.
The third point is where that wiggle room gets more difficult to manage. For many, especially those carrying multiple layers of privilege, there is a sense of entitlement to express opinions that are frankly horrifying.
For example, a very brief Google search for “arguments against the hijab” results in a litany of opinions. Some are from respected Muslim women making moving and deeply personal cases, while most of them are from American and English white men pushing Christian or Atheistic agendas and offering clichéd, sophomoric dismissals of the religious practice (my apologies, but I refuse to link to any of these).
The arguments always condescend, insisting that the traditional head-coverings of the Islamic faith contribute to a culture that devalues women. This of course ignores the possibility that these women just plain might choose to wear the covering, in the same way that these men might elect to wear pants because they find shorts uncomfortable. And it ignores the reality that in the US, 69% of Muslim women who wear hijab report instances of discrimination vs. 29% for women who do not.
Now, take an issue like choice. A viewpoint I have heard a lot in my life is what I’ve heard called a compartmentalized stance on choice. This comes from individuals and couples who say that they themselves would never seek out abortions, usually on religious grounds, but that they also recognize bodily autonomy and the necessity to defend access to abortion services for those who want or need them.
Choice, after all, must include the decision to not have an abortion even in the face of circumstances in which another person might desire one. It’s the same line of reasoning that says true feminism makes room for women who choose to dress minimally as the ones who choose to dress modestly (including those doing so for religiously oriented reasons).
Now, place that stance against the decidedly anti-choice rhetoric the arguments that abortion equals infanticide, that those who have and perform abortions are murderers, and that the practice should be made illegal. Those first two points are disquieting and problematic, but kept private, don’t really force me to lose any sleep.
That last point, however, directly affects a lot of innocent people, and does so at the behest of belief systems they do not subscribe to. Any one of those assertions is worth a disallowance of respect, that last one above all others. Because it hurts people. Because it’s institutional Body Terrorism, putting the power of the law behind a movement to inflict fear on people merely looking to exercise their bodily autonomy.
Respect is powerful. It’s how we continue to get on with one another despite all of the fear and anger and struggle we encounter on a daily basis. A lack of respect is also the bare minimum needed to allow unjust, dangerous actions pervade into our culture. In general, respect can be pretty easy to dole out: look for it to be given, and give it back accordingly.
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[Feature Image: A photo of a person’s head. They are grimacing at the camera and have a shaved head is wearing what appears to be a jean jacket. Behind them is a body of water and rocks and day time sky. Source: Isai Moreno]