Is Respect Politeness or Admiration?

If you can’t tell me what respect is, isn’t it a bit optimistic to demand it from me?

I like Plato, which means I’m sensitive to the dangers of “word thinking”. Word thinking is the bad habit of emphasizing the sound and spelling we use to indicate a concept rather than the concept itself. Tolerance for example, can indicate an absence of hatred, but it can also mean a situation where someone restrains them-self from interfering with something annoying: “He tolerated his husband’s terrible singing out of love.” Word thinking is dangerous because it leads to situations where disagree strongly about words without disagreeing about issues.

Person 1:“He praye’th best who love’th best all creatures great and small.”

Person 2: “Religion sanctions sexual abuse of animals!”

The internet seems to be word thinking about the word respect. Some people use the word to refer to “human decency”, others see it as a for of “deferential admiration”. This dichotomy is best illustrated in memes like the one below:

I agree with both parts, but the combination is jarring.

A humorous answer to this meme might be: “How dare you presume to dictate my behavior without establishing your credibility, or presenting any argument!?! This is nonsense, and I hope you’d respect me enough to tell me as much if I said something like that to you!”

The first meme seems so dissonant because it employs two different theories of respect in a way that seems to indicate the author thought one followed from the other. It gets worse:

Underlining a word doesn’t clarify your argument.

This meme is saddening because it assumes the “admiration and deference” definition of respect, and then tries to shove in another couple of ambiguous words. In this case earning can either refer to a process where you come to deserve something as a result of your actions “The worker is worthy of his hire. Luke 10:7” or it can refer to causing yourself to receive something. “The lazy bureaucrat earned a good salary.” The meme could mean anything from the offensive “I’ll treat you with decency the day you stop being worthless!” all the way to: “I’ll be nice to you if you’ll be nice to me.” The interpretation is weighted towards the former since the reader is left wondering why you felt the need to call this to their attention.

If you do write something ambiguous, make it look friendly so people know you’re trying to be nice :)

The second word “given” refers either to transferring possession of something or to bestowing something freely as a gift. Because Respect is an ambiguous term this meme is open to the interpretation: “Stop asking to be treated politely you worthless person!” In fact the most likely intent was “Stop asking to be treated with deference until you’ve done something impressive!” This is the kind of bickering which starts when people argue based on words rather than concepts.

Word thinking creates two parallel conversations. It divides people into groups by their shared definitions, and then makes cross group conversations unproductive. Worst of all word thinking, causes us to hurt each other’s feelings, creating genuine causes of enmity out of mere misunderstandings. Beware the rhetorical traps inherent in boiling your opinions down into memes. Word thinking is “dumb”, not in the sense of being unable to speak, or of having a low IQ, but in the sense that it is pointless and harmful to society.(Not society in the sense of a social network of fashionable aristocrats, but society in the sense of the network of interdependence relationships which allows are species to survive despite the our fragility in comparison to the harsh demands of nature.)

The cast of “High Society”



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store



Martial Arts, Law, Science, Philosophy文武双全, body hacking, dyslexia