Everyone is deserving of respect. And I mean literally everyone.
Don’t get me wrong — respect comes in different forms, and certainly I don’t think Hitler deserves the same level of respect as Nelson Mandela. But it’s hard, if not impossible, to quantify respect and the privileges that come with it, and that’s not what I’m trying to get at. All I’m saying is this — I believe that, at the end of the day, many of our societal problems arise from a simple failure to respect other people’s basic humanity.
When we start believing that other people don’t deserve any respect at all, we change how we treat them. We give them labels, labels like “illegal alien” — which suggests that they aren’t even human, that their very existence is a crime. We refuse to listen to them and find ways to silence their stories. We create laws and policies that take away their basic rights, making it possible to spy on them, lock them up, torture them, sometimes even kill them. Look back over human history and you’ll see we’ve done this many times over. African slavery, the Armenian Genocide, Japanese-American internment, the Patriot Act, the Holocaust, the Rwandan Genocide, the White Terror — just to name a few. While all of these were (and are) highly multifaceted, they couldn’t have happened unless one group of people decided that another group wasn’t worthy of their respect. You cannot make war, commit genocide, or oppress a population without leveraging the value of respect, without saying: she’s on the good side, so you should respect her and let her live, but she’s on the bad side, so you can go ahead and do whatever you want with her.
I believe a basic level of respect should apply to everyone — a respect that cannot be lost or taken away. If we decide to treat everyone with respect, we make a commitment to value their individual lives, to protect their basic human rights, to listen to what they have to say. And if we do that, it becomes very, very hard to hate, oppress, and murder our fellow human beings, no matter how we try to justify it.
A Short Story
It’s not always easy to respect everyone, but it’s something to work towards. In 11th grade I had a history teacher who was arguably racist, depending on your definition of the term. They said some very hateful things about non-WASP people, ridiculed many Asian countries, trampled over Native American terminology and cultures, and sugarcoated Japanese-American internment. As the days went by I became more and more critical of the little things they said, and I stopped taking notes and paying attention to their lectures. It was the first time in my life that I came close to actually hating another person – and when I started to feel that hatred, I knew it was time to put the brakes on and take a look at myself. And here’s what I realized: it’s dangerous to not have a solid, irrevocable foundation of respect in all of our relationships, because lack of basic respect breeds miscommunication, cruelty, hatred, and ultimately violence.
I could have talked to this teacher. I could have explained, I took issue with what you just said and here’s why. I could have had a respectful, open-minded dialogue, if I just went up to them and said, I want to know why you think Japanese-American internment was equatable to summer camp. Instead I sat in my chair and stewed until I felt hatred, until I felt capable of cruelty.
This story was about a simple two-person relationship. Replicate it on a grander scale, and I hope you can see how lack of basic respect can lead to systems of oppression, war, and genocide.
Do Children Deserve Respect?
At what age does someone become deserving of respect? I get that question sometimes. But if you ask me, it’s kind of a silly question. It’s not like you turn 18 and all of a sudden your life and voice matters. So my answer is this: if I say everyone is deserving of respect, I really do mean everyone, and that extends to children of all ages.
Once again, I’m talking about a very foundational level of respect, a respect for another person’s basic humanity. That six year-old throwing a tantrum in the grocery store is a fellow human being – so they’re deserving of respect, no matter how much you might dislike them right now, no matter how annoying they are. Respecting them means valuing their life, their rights, their voice, and everyone is deserving of at least that.
What about school? I always have a lot to say about our education system and how adults treat children there. Time and time again I’ve seen teachers, administrators, and staff disrespecting students, and that’s not okay. The same is often true in reverse, but in my experience, the failure of a student to show a teacher basic respect was often because they felt the teacher didn’t respect them in return. Especially in high school, a time when many students are beginning to hold jobs and external responsibilities, it’s not okay for adults to refuse to listen to them, to assume they were just lazy, to assume they just ditched class for no reason, to assume they’re self-righteous arrogant little pricks who need to be locked up and shown the meaning of discipline. When you don’t show a student of any age basic respect, you’re teaching them that humanity doesn’t automatically come with being human – instead it becomes something that you can freely give or take away. And that’s, in a word, dangerous.
The Bottom Line
Train yourself to treat everyone with respect. Value individual human lives. Listen to what people have to say, and be open-minded. Stand up for them when you see their rights being infringed upon.
This is how we fight against war, oppression, genocide, human rights violations, and simple day-to-day acts of cruelty.
Every human being matters.