Toward an Ethic of Respect

I recently wrote a paper on the topic of the role of respect in conflict, so my next couple of posts will cover some of the points I discussed there.  I am particularly interested in this topic because I think that disrespect is a common yet often overlooked culprit in the initiation and continuation of conflicts.  For example, I recall observing an interpersonal, workplace mediation between a supervisor and his employee.  Subsequent to each side telling their reasons for being at the mediation, the mediators facilitated the agenda building of the mediation, which captures key points of the opening statements for discussion and negotiation.  One of the listed items on the whiteboard was respect, which one of the mediators quickly pointed out could be written down as a reason for mediation nearly every time he has mediated.  Another example is to listen to the comments one side is making against its adversary.  Whether it’s Christian versus Muslim, Democrat versus Republican, or two college rivals, the rhetoric is one that is empty of respect.

What is respect? Respect is a universal ethical obligation that believes all people have unconditional value as human beings and acting in accordance with that belief.  By defining respect as a universal ethic, I argue that at a base level, each person should recognize the humanity of the Other.  Here, I distinguish between the ethic of respect and the social construct of respect.  These two ideologies of respect are vastly different from one another in terms of philosophy and application.  While the former includes both a cognitive dimension and behavioral dimension and is universal, the latter contains only the behavioral dimension and is more culturally-bound.

To simply behave respectfully is to do so simply because someone else may be watching or to appear nice, but the underlying attitude of respect is not present.  These actions alone, while courteous and nice, show a duplicitous life in which there is a disconnection between thought and action.  I say that the social construct of respect is culturally driven, because how we display this respect is usually in relation to what our society or the prevailing culture dictates.

Respect as intentioned here is not the same as toleration, which I view as a passive allowance with no desire to really appreciate someone else’s beliefs.  I am proffering an active respect, in which people not only allow the Other to believe something (e.g. freedom of religion), but actually engage the Other in what she believes in order to better understand her and deepen their relationship.  An example of this engagement and relationship building can be found in a trio comprised of a Muslim sheikh, a Jewish rabbi, and a Christian minister – collectively known as “The Interfaith Amigos” – who I had the opportunity to hear speak about the beginning of their relationship and how their relationship has grown as they have further learned about one another and about themselves.  They do not just tolerate each other’s beliefs; they respect each other as deeply religious persons who are trying to make sense of life.

I’m reminded of the adage of walking in someone else’s shoes to better understand them and their position.  What better way to show respect than to listen to someone who’s different, empathize with them, and engage them in a meaningful, honest dialogue.  But we must first want to respect them.  An ethic of respect encompasses both thought and action.


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