Respect is Sometimes Earned, But Often Not

I’m a big advocate for cultural renewal at the community level, likely because of various cultural anthropology and sociology classes that I took in college.  I believe that a loss of community has led to severe socio-cultural isolation among people in the United States, resulting in the current era of social unrest. Our desire for independence as individuals, in light of ever-dissolving community structures, has left a void within us.  As social beings, we need interdependence between our families, peers and the social structures surrounding us in order to function as an advancing society.

The concept of interdependence describes a pattern of human interaction, which upholds and sustains individuals for the benefit of all members within a large group of people. To illustrate, we might look at the Neighborhood Watch programs that sprang up across the country in communities during the late 1980’s.   They used a common goal (crime prevention) to create community bonds and to deter crime in the neighborhood.  There is one requirement that must be present in interdependent groups – a community value of respect for each other’s point-of-view. Most people believe that respect is earned rather than given, but I beg to differ.

Before I defend my position, let’s define the word “respect” when used as a verb:


  • to feel admiration for (someone or something)
  • to regard (someone or something) as being worthy of admiration because of good qualities
  • to act in a way which shows that you are aware of (someone’s rights, wishes, etc.)
  • to treat or deal with (something that is good or valuable) in a proper way

Respect is one of the basic norms that has held communities together since the dawn of mankind. When we behave the opposite way, we are called “disrespectful.” The problem with American culture is that we feel compelled to stand on one side of the fence or the other. Respectful behavior requires us to quietly sit on the fence, taking time to observe and understand one another, rather than making impulsive judgments and speaking rashly, before we have considered all of the facts.

Today’s cult of personality encourages us to exude self-esteem as we each stand up and make our voice heard. We have zipped straight past assertive empowerment into the realm of highly-opinionated aggression. In earlier societies, such behavior would only be employed by those who challenge, overthrow, and assume leadership. These days, everybody is coached to be a leader beginning in elementary school, throughout college, and in their career. However, being a leader doesn’t require us to be ultra-competitive; conversely, some leaders work “behind the scenes,” influencing peers to use skill and integrity. Their goal is not to overthrow anyone, but to act as a guide.  After all, being labeled a leader doesn’t necessarily mean one has the ability to attract followers.

Nonetheless, most of us are well-aware of pecking orders, and we know enough to remain compliant within chains of command.  Not very long ago in history, any challenges towards an authority figure could have resulted in a trip to the gallows. Our current freedom of speech gives license to all matters of troublesome talk. Our government knows this and exerts damage control measures to contain potentially damaging dialogue. But in everyday interactions with our peers, we have very few checks and balances. Instead, we tend to push and pull until we get our way, or else we simply withdraw from the conversation altogether.

I’d like to point out another strong contributing factor to our loss of interdependence – the mask of social media. Rude, disrespectful behavior comes out quite naturally when we hide behind it. In the few years since the internet came along, we have seen it affect nearly every aspect of our society from bullied teens to national security leaks. Without social monitoring controls or adequate recourse against criminal activity, we are witnessing the worst of mankind’s nature. These types of problems will multiply as we delve into the world of artificial intelligence.

When emerging societies begin adopting modern American ideals, we will have a greater need for cultural harmony. Right now, the rest of the world sees us as egotistical nationalists. We need to change this perception by being effective leaders for the promotion of cultural renewal. I propose the following ideas in meeting this objective:

  1. Education – Provide instruction in basic sociology theory and communication skills for school-aged children. Employ the word “respect” as a community value within the student-body. Direct interdependence public service campaigns towards parents and community members.
  2. Government – Include cultural awareness, tolerance and diversity, and organized community building activities in public planning committees. Institute government reforms that include training in effective communication skills, social policy and sociology. Encourage respectful dialogue as an ethical norm.
  3. Religion – Promote dialogue that uplifts individuals, while encouraging fellowship instead of pointing out community divisions. Emphasize relationship-building as a means of serving others. Promote the equality of all mankind and direct parishioners towards self-appraisal vs. judgment of others.
  4. Family – Treat family members with dignity and unconditional positive regard. Focus on, building up individual strengths instead of shaming individual weaknesses. Verbalize words of approval at every opportunity, rather than disappointment for shortcomings. Don’t ignore negative behavior, but explain why correcting it is important for the benefit of the family and the greater community.
  5. Economic – Encourage small business growth via community collaboration initiatives. Develop technology incubators within highly diverse communities. Enhance outreach efforts for marginalized populations, and increase monitoring activities of public funds used for those purposes.  Tighten up oversight of banking and industry violations and be consistent about prosecution of criminal acts.

To conclude, I must reiterate the need for respectful dialogue and behavior as a foundation for interdependence, along with the use of restraint in forming opinions within social situations.  Those who are able to master this personal discipline may find themselves treated as peer role-models who are esteemed social leaders.  This, my friend, is what has been referred to since days of old as wisdom.

[i] “respect.” 2013. (10 October 2013).


  1. I find that respectful communications occur in many places, in person, but are severely lacking in the online world. Many people hide behind keyboards and write hate speeches that they would never say directly face-to-face to someone else. You defend your argument well here, Aleshia. You have a strong soul and I am proud to call you a friend.

    • Thank you so much Christy! Call me old-fashioned, but I do still believe in that golden rule philosophy. I am honored to call you a friend as well. Your poetry is riveting; no other word could fully describe it.

  2. This post rings so true. I became acutely award of how far downhill respectful communication has gone in my years as a teacher. Even when I found my stride and learned how to earn students’ respect, it was still always a struggle to get them to respect each other in classroom conversations. Social media has definitely taken its toll.

    • We tend to objectify others When we disrespect them, opening the door for verbal and even physical abuse. I love social media for the opportunities it provides us Jeri, but children are usually not responsible enough to use it without parental supervision. And we all know what happens when cruel teens and adults use it’s power against others. Free speech is fine, but threats and intimidation are not. Unfortunately, too many parents condone this kind of behavior. In fact, some are responsible for modeling disrespect and cruelty to others in front of their own children.

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Donna Jean McDunn

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