President's Column

Respect and Moral Values

Paul T. P. Wong
Paul T. P. Wong, Ph.D., C. Psych.
Trent University

You feel the sting, the hurt, whenever others insult or trivialize you. How should you react when people are rude or disrespectful? Should you get angry and react in kind, or should you try to rationalize and rise above the insult? Are you being too sensitive or expecting too much from people?

If you are struggling with the problem of a lack of civility and respect in human interactions, you are not alone.

dangerfieldPerhaps, we can learn something from Rodney Dangerfield, a stand-up comedian who passed away just a few weeks ago. He built a successful career around the self-deprecating one-liner: “I don’t get no respect.” How it touches a responsive chord across generations!

In explaining the secret of his success, Rodney once said: “I’m very lucky. Years ago they had images, like W.C. Fields, Laurel and Hardy, and Groucho. But today, I think I’m the only one around with an image. And that image is something everyone identified with. They all feel life treated ’em wrong and they got no respect.” (Time Out New York, February 6, 1997).

No matter how successful and recognized, people tend to feel that they don’t receive the respect they deserve. For example, each year, when Nobel prizes are announced, I am sure that there are hundreds of equally accomplished individuals who feel that they have been overlooked or slighted. The same applies to the awarding of Oscars.

Deep down, we all crave respect, as if our self-esteem and self-identity depend on it. It is interesting to note that while we all expect others to respect us, we somehow feel justified for not respecting others. There are always one hundred reasons for not respecting someone: “That guy is simply an idiot!” or “I can’t believe that he is so rude!”

Cultural Warfare

Of course, there is the good old negative stereotyping. By denigrating a particular group, whether they are Jews or Arabs, gays or straights, liberals or conservatives, people feel it is easy to denigrate individuals on the basis of group membership.

To complicate the issue, respect and tolerance have become moral absolutes for the social engineers. In their zeal to promote the rights of the minorities and under-privileged, they would decry anyone who dares to disagree with their social agenda, such as abortion rights and gay marriage. All kinds of derogative terms, such as “bigots” and “idiots” have been used to characterize those who hold conservative religious, moral values.

Similarly, those who passionately advocate “sanctity of life” and “traditional marriage” as part of their fundamental moral values feel equally strong about those who disagree with them on these issues. They depict proponents of progressive, liberal views as “godless” or “immoral”. They too want to impose their conservative moral absolutes on others through political means.

In the fierce cultural civil war throughout the recent Presidential election in America, respect was the first casualty. The shouting matches in some TV talk-shows, such as Cross-fire and Hardball, further reinforce the notion that “politeness” is for “girly men” and there is no room for “respect” in the gladiatorial blood sport of politics.

Restoring the Virtue of Respect

It is understandable that we have difficulty tolerating and respecting those who violate our deepest moral convictions. It is hard not to react emotionally and viscerally when others try to destroy what we hold dearer than our own lives. To respect the offenders is tantamount to betrayal of our authentic self.

But how do we hold a society together with diverse cultures and moral convictions? Can civilization survive, if we do away with moral absolutes? Is it possible to discover common ground and shared moral absolutes? How can we make “respect” one of those shared universal virtues without turning it into a coercive, political tool? These are weighty and complex questions for us to ponder.

Perhaps, the first step towards resolving the problem of cultural warfare is to find some ways of showing respect to those who honestly disagree with us on religious and moral issues. I don’t mean superficiality or duplicity in our display of respect. I believe that we can have honest dialogue and debates in the market place of ideas, without the poison of political passion. We can even discover an attitude of respect that is rooted in our common humanity.