Respect is a powerful word, and I believe also a very important one, implying as it does notions of attentiveness, regard, dignity and esteem. Malcolm Gladwell relates in Blink that the single most reliable factor in predicting the longevity of a marriage is the level of contempt: once there is contempt of one partner for another, the relationship is apparently doomed. So what then does this mean for our other relationships, with our friends, family members, the strangers we meet (or never will), and our relationship with nature?
I believe lack of respect (and fear of contempt) is having a profound impact on our ability to form healthy communities, socialise, work, and play, together, and learn from each other. After all, if you don't respect someone, how can you ever learn from them, understand them, or co-operate with them? The Government seems to agree: their website tackling anti-social behaviour is actually called "Respect". But although they naturally focus on families, parenting, neighbourhoods, activities for da yoof and so on, there is no mention of respect in the workplace, or any other of the many ways in which society disrespects its citizens.
We expect nearly two-thirds of the working population to fight for respect in their communities and then face daily contempt at work. I personally experience ongoing disrespect from my bank, various big businesses, my Government, the public services, tradesmen, supermarkets and even the media. We look on as our institutions destroy the planet and alienate small businesses, our schools teach our children they are wrong and that their curiosity isn't welcome, and our financial systems enslave anyone who dares to be poor or vulnerable. And then to relax, we can watch Simon Cowell telling people that they have no right to sing any more.
We have imprisoned ourselves in a system that doesn't respect us. And then we wonder why we're all so anti-social...
Many years ago, my father wrote an essay for his philosophy society arguing that it is morally admirable to respect a stone, because the act of respecting defines the person doing it, and not the recipient. He still has a quotation from Hamlet on the wall of his study, the spirit of which I have always tried to live by:
My lord, I will use them according to their desert.
God's bodkins, man, much better! use every man
after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?
Use them after your own honour and dignity: the less
they deserve, the more merit is in your bounty.
Take them in.
Don't wait for others to respect you; instead, respect them, and define yourself by that. The rest will follow.