We need a collective pause, a collective reflection, and a collective reckoning with the idea of respect.
I have spent the last seven years studying dignity and encouraging prosocial critical thinking in classrooms, organizations, and individuals. My work is grounded in the research of Donna Hicks Ph.D, a pioneer in operationalizing the idea of dignity, specifically as an international conflict resolution expert. In her own words, the dignity model “is an approach I developed to help people understand the role that dignity plays in their lives and relationships. It is my response to what I have observed to be a missing link in our understanding of conflict: our failure to recognize how vulnerable humans are to being treated as if they didn’t matter.”
A core facet of understanding dignity is making the distinction between dignity and respect, two concepts that are frequently conflated. Dignity is non-negotiable—it is the inherent worth and value of every human. Respect, on the other hand, is negotiable. It is earned or lost through an individual’s or organization’s choices, actions, and behaviors.
This is not how society teaches us to think about respect, and there-in lies a problem. We have been taught that there is a universal definition of respect, which is just not true. If you look at the dictionary definition of respect you will find many terms like, “a feeling of deep admiration for,” or “ to consider worthy.” The commonality between the definitions is that they imply personal opinion and context. You were not born with an ingrained idea of respect, you were taught a definition based on your context, your culture, and how you have been socialized. We are all coming to every interaction in our lives with a socialized idea of respect, and this largely unacknowledged fact has major repercussions.
Respect cannot be guaranteed and it cannot be demanded. We each have individual definitions of what respect means.. An example to clarify this point is holding a door for someone. Do you hold doors for others? Do you hold the door for everyone? Elderly people? Women? Men? Young people? Someone of a different race? Is holding of a door an act of respect, or is that simply an acknowledgement of our common humanity? Dr. Hicks argues that individuals, “earn respect through their behavior and actions. Earning respect means doing something that goes above and beyond the baseline right to be treated well.” Does holding a door for someone go above and beyond their baseline right to be treated well, or is simply acknowledging humanity a basic part of the social contract? If I am that person rushing to catch that door, what conclusions might I jump to if you, accidentally or not, let it slam in my face. Our perceptions of respect impact our choices, actions, and behaviors, as well as the experiences of others.
Our individual perceptions of respect translate to workplaces, to schools, and to our communities. Ask yourself, whose behavior is disproportionately policed by the intersection of respect and power? For example, if you are a leader in an organization who thinks eye contact and active participation are essential signs of respect, how does that ripple out and impact others? Are you overlooking the value of introverts in your organization? Will your unconscious bias stop you from connecting with or valuing those who find direct eye contact intimidating? Will someone with a stutter not make it past an initial interview process or be able to succeed in your organization or classroom? What about those whose experiences with bias have taught them if they participate actively they are more likely to have their responses coded in stereotypes, so they hold back, and are thus perceived as less engaged?
Organizing relationships and communities around respect creates a system that is inherently biased because it uses an individual, socialized definition to police the perceived value and participation of others. Demanding respect does not create the relationships you want because they are not based in admiration and mutual respect. Demanding respect creates relationships based in fear, humiliation, and mutual insecurity. Socialized ideas of respect deny the myriad of factors that impact who is able to access spaces, who is seen as valuable, whose voices carry weight, who gets to succeed, and whose humanity gets to matter.
Recognition that our concept of respect is socialized and therefore not universal, has the potential to transform our organizations and relationships. Denial of this reality will continue to perpetuate systemic bias and oppression. Too many individuals and organizations support oppression, either consciously or unconsciously, because they rely on their concept of respect as a way to measure an individual or group’s perceived value and contribution to relationships, organizations, and society at large. Respect based social contracts are dangerous because they support unconscious dehumanization. Recognizing how you came to your individual definition of respect, and how it impacts those around you, is an essential first step towards being a more aware and equitable human.
Using dignity in place of respect is positively disruptive because it replaces biased concepts of respect with universal recognition of worth and value as the foundation for culture and relationships. Coming to every interaction, conflict, project, relationship with the mindset, We all matter the same amount no matter what, is a radical shift in the way we have been taught to view human behavior.
We are not born knowing how to honor individual and collective dignity, we have to choose to learn how. Learning about dignity and basing schools,organizations and relationships in it is transformative. It prioritizes emotional safety and depersonalizes conflict because it doesn’t weaponize shame or hierarchy. Creating cultures of dignity takes work, but it is work you are capable of.
Get curious about your understanding of respect. Ask yourself:
- How do I define respect? How did I come to understand my definition of respect?
- How did the experiences of my life influence who I respect, who I do not respect, and what actions earn respect?
- How am I imposing my definition of respect onto others? How do I use my perception of respect to police the behaviors of others?
- Does my socialized perception of respect limit how I see others’ value?
- Why do I feel my perception of respect gets to be the “right” one? How does that limit my ability to acknowledge the dignity of others?
- Why are other perceptions of respect, especially if they challenge mine, dismissed or denied? How might my definition of respect impact someone else’s ability to succeed, especially if I hold a position of power in my community or organization?
- How can I train myself to get curious about other people’s definitions of respect?
- How can reflecting on my definition of respect transform my relationships?