The Human Condition:

On Respect – July 19, 2020

Helping hand

It has long been a key demand of people who describe themselves as being in some kind of lesser social position that they must get “respect.” What they mean by this is not exactly clear to me. Do they want recognition by total strangers of their innermost and sometimes hidden talents and skills? Deference to their inner sense of excellence? Special treatment because of their reduced situation? Special treatment because of past injustices? What?

I am not prepared to give anyone unknown to me any kind of special treatment. That is, I reserve intimacy, generosity, understanding, and the willingness to be discomfited and indisposed only to my friends and family. To all others I offer payment in cash—and at arm’s length.

But what I am willing to extend to strangers on the street is a limited form of good will. And this involves a small number of unremarkable acts and gestures.

First, I will show the stranger my own form of courtesy, including the performance of small favors. Courtesy is represented by brief eye contact and a polite smile. A small favor would be holding the door open for someone whose hands are full, or holding it after I pass through so that it does not slam in the face of the person behind me. I will also step to one side on a narrow path to allow another person to pass without hindrance. In traffic, I will let the driver in the other lane make his or her turn, or cross the intersection when it is unclear who arrived at their stop sign first, or who holds the privileged position of being “to the right” (a California specialty). And on the freeway, I will not speed up to get ahead of someone coming up the on-ramp and trying to merge—in fact, I will even move one lane to the left, space permitting, to allow them to enter.1

Second, with that eye contact and smile, I am acknowledging the stranger’s shared humanity. My tacit message is that we have certain things in common: vulnerability to gravity, the laws of physics, a certain unspoken regard for rights of way and fair dealing, a lack of violent intent, and a shared helplessness before the existential ennui of the human condition.2 I am prepared to extend this basic humanity to anything that walks on two legs—or with appropriate prosthetics3—and has human form. Trial, testing, and perhaps being found wanting will come later, if our contact extends beyond mere passage on the street. Until you prove otherwise, you are human and I expect you to be self-aware, properly motivated, gracious in return, and reliably housebroken.

Third, if and when our involvement does become more complex, I will deal with you fairly. This might not be your idea of fairness or how you would act in the same situation. I don’t presume to know your standards and feelings, or how you view the world. This will be what I consider fair and even-handed. But, just because you are not one of my intimate friends, that does not mean I will try to short-change or cheat you, take advantage of you, or treat you as prey, a confidence mark, or an enemy. I have no reason to hate you.

Fourth, with that increased involvement will also come my tacit pledge to tell you the truth. Again, this will not necessarily be your truth or anything you might wish to hear.4 I do not presume to know your mind. This will be the version of reality as I understand it, without fear or favor for what might lurk within your consciousness. I will try to present you with an interpretation of reality that we both can find useful. Just because I don’t know you, that does not mean I will try to trick or deceive you. I have no reason to lie to you.

Fifth and finally, if in that extended encounter we should develop differences of opinion or intention, I will extend to you the benefit of the doubt. I know that my understanding of reality and of the current situation might not be your understanding. I will assume that, when a misunderstanding occurs, it is a case of miscommunication—language being such a slippery thing, and intentions not always clear and obvious—rather than the result of intentional misrepresentation or bad conduct on your part.

This is about as much as I can manage with a stranger—and I expect the rest of the world to be reasonably well brought up and extend the same conditional good will back to me. But, for some people, these underlying, tacit acts and gestures may not be enough.

The person who craves, publicly calls out for, and in every situation demands a visible show of a priori respect generally wants one of two things. Either they want to be treated with the same acceptance and understanding that they believe I extend to my intimate friends and family. Or they want to be accorded the credit, acceptance, and admiration that the public generally gives to popular entertainers, politicians, and sports stars: recognition of past accomplishments—or sometimes simple recognition—that the individual demanding such respect has not yet achieved and may not deserve. They want to be put on a pedestal in which they haven’t yet invested the effort of climbing.

And that falls under the heading of “Secret Desires and Intentions.” As I noted above, I cannot know your mind. And if you make a claim to notoriety that is unsupported, I am within my rights in failing to support it.

The claim of undue or special respect, like so much in our modern discourse, belongs to the dissonance between “your feelings” and “my reality.” That’s a set of transactions that, even among people who are intimately related, can be full of slippery surfaces. Among strangers, it’s a recipe for social disaster.

1. However, courtesy in driving can be overdone. Too much deference, extended too long or in the wrong situation, can get you rear-ended. When directing two tons of steel on four wheels—or a half-ton gross vehicle weight of motorcycle plus rider—at high speeds, you have to take your position, move in a predictable fashion, and uphold your rights.

2. If I am really feeling jovial and acknowledging that ennui, I might give the stranger a wink. But that’s happened maybe twice in this century.

3. However, a person in a motorized wheelchair or exoskeleton with advanced hydraulics, rendering him or her faster, more mobile, or stronger than the average two-legged variety, will get special attention and, from me, a defensive attitude and positioning.

4. However, I am not in the habit of telling people unpleasant things, as a version of truth, ostensibly “for their own good.” That is an uncivil habit that should not be practiced on people in the street, much less on one’s own friends and family members.