A revised version of this post appeared in 2007.
In the various workshops I’ve put on for young men (and not so-young-men), I’ve talked a lot about the real meaning of one of my favorite words, “respect.” (And if you’re thinking of the Aretha Franklin song now, hold on, I’ll get to it.)
I often start by writing the word “respect” on a flip chart or chalkboard, and then ask the folks I’m working with to play the word association game with me. Everyone gets to throw out the first thing that comes into their head when they hear or see the word. As you might expect, I get a lot of different definitions. Some people do think of chivalry; almost always, someone will say that “opening the door for a woman” is the first thing that he thinks of when he hear the word. Others will offer a negative definition, suggesting that “respect” is more about what you don’t do than what you do: “It’s like watching your language around a girl”; “It’s about not grabbing her just ’cause you want to”; (I remember that definition vividly from one high school group), “It’s treating her as a girl and not like a guy.” I write as many of the definitions and word associations on the board as I can. <
I then tell them the meaning of the word. Spectare means “to look”; re means “again.” So respect is “to look again.” I then ask the audience what they think “to look again” might mean when it comes to how we treat each other. (Usually, some wiseacre will say something like “That means when you see a girl who’s lookin’ fine, you look at her twice!” Everyone laughs indulgently.) But most of them start to get it: “looking again” means looking beyond a superficial exterior. Another way of thinking about “respect” is to suggest that it’s moving beyond “looking at” to “seeing”. To be looked at is to be perceived as an object; to be seen is to be recognized as a unique and valuable human being. Most young people can instantly think of times when they’ve felt the difference between “being looked at” and being truly “seen.”
Respect isn’t chivalry, if what we mean by chivalry is a fairly rigid, antiquated code of prescribed ways of treating men and women differently. Indeed, respect and chivalry can be in considerable opposition. If a code of chivalry conditions me to treat a woman in a certain way merely because she’s a woman, then by definition I’m not respecting her — because I’m not seeing her as a person, only as a female. Think of the epic battles that happen over the issue of holding doors open. I can think of countless men who’ve complained that, to put it vulgarly, they’ve been “bitched out” by women for whom they held open a door or performed some other act of traditional “courtesy.” Respect, however, is deliberately refraining from imposing your own particular views on how the sexes ought to relate onto others. Respect is paying enough attention to those around you that you begin to see as unique human beings; respect is adapting your own behavior to the different needs of different people. Chivalry is a “two-size fits all” approach.
Everyone knows the Aretha Franklin R-E-S-P-E-C-T song. One of the best lines in it is the refrain “R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me.” It’s not a throw-away lyric! Find out what it means to me. That “to me” is vital, and it’s right on. Respect may mean one thing to Aretha, and another thing to Joanne, still another to Maria, still another to Jill, still another to Ralph or Harry or Ted. Respect involves making a unique connection with one other human being; it is inherently incompatible with any rigid code of gender-based conduct. Holding a door open for someone who doesn’t want the door held isn’t respect.
Aretha’s magnificent song has a very different definition of respect than one that did very well on country radio a couple of years ago: “Cleaning my Gun”, by Rodney Atkins. A song about a protective father, it includes these wince-inducing lines:
Well now that I’m a father
I’m scared to death one day my daughter’s gonna find
That teenage boy I used to be
Who seems to have just one thing on his mind
She’s growing up so fast it won’t be long
‘fore I’ll have to put the fear of god
Into some kid at the door
Come on in boy, sit on down
And tell me ’bout yourself
So you like my daughter, do you now
Yeah we think she’s something else
She’s her daddy’s girl, her momma’s world
She deserves respect, thats what she’ll get
Ain’t it son, ya’ll run on and have some fun
I’ll see you when you get back
Probably be up all night
Still cleaning this gun
It’s an old and ugly trope: Daddy uses the threat of violence to guard his daughter’s sexual innocence. “Respect”, in the Atkins song, offers no possibility for agency on the daughter’s part. Rather, “respect” is defined as “keep your hands off my little girl”. The beau is invited to find out what “respect” means to Dad, and it doesn’t matter one bit what it means to his daughter. And the end result will be the same: keeping your hands off your date just because you’re scared of her papa’s gun is no more a sign of respect than pawing at her in self-centered lust. In either scenario, there’s a complete failure to look again, to see what the woman involved might actually want.
Many feminists are rightly suspicious of the language of “respect” because they hear the word the way the likes of Rodney Atkins use it. But the word is a useful one, particularly when we reclaim its original meaning. When we use it the way Aretha used it, with its exuberant insistence that we “find out” the unique desires of the people with whom we interact, it’s a positive concept indeed. In the struggle against rape, harassment, and sexualized violence, clarifying the authentic meaning of “respect” is vital. And once properly understood, it’s something we can insist upon.