As New York City mayor Bill de Blasio spoke at a slain police officer’s funeral recently, police officers outside the church turned their backs on him. Most commentators decried the disrespect shown by the officers toward the mayor. On the other side of the divide, members of the NYPD have felt that de Blasio’s previous remarks were disrespectful to police officers. It seems clear that respect is a deeply felt need of all human beings.
If you had to choose, which would you pick: love or respect? That’s a trick question. Without respect, it’s hard to feel loved. When a husband tells his wife, “Don’t worry your pretty little head about that,” he is questioning her intelligence. He may love her dearly, but she will not feel it. Likewise, when a woman berates her husband, or parents berate their children, calling them “stupid” or belittling their feelings, the lack of respect overshadows any love present in the relationship.
The inherent dignity of the human person demands that we respect each other. So why is it so difficult?
People love sarcasm and mockery. From a young age, kids learn to jockey for power and status by mastering the art of the put-down. Variations on “Yo mama . . .” have been around since time immemorial. In fact, a whole musical genre, the rap face-off, consists of verbal insult flinging. Some of America’s favorite comedians have relied almost completely on sarcasm and insults for their humor. Don Rickles comes to mind for the older set and possibly Daniel Tosh or Chelsea Handler for the millennials.
Name-calling is another problem in our culture. If I disagree with you on a political issue, for example, then you must be an idiot or a Nazi. People can’t seem to resist hitting below the belt when they argue. It may be human nature to put others down, but disrespect breaks down the foundations of our civilization.
Disrespect is dehumanizing. If I think of homeless people as hobos or bag ladies, I reduce them to pathetic losers. I don’t have to ponder the fact that they have nowhere to rest their heads on a cold winter’s night. If I use a racial slur, I reduce people to stereotypes, and I’m not forced to reach out and try for tolerance or understanding.
Aretha Franklin certainly said it all in her rousing classic “Respect.” Find out what it means to those around you, and then practice it every day.