Respect is a Dangerous Word

Folks, we have officially messed up respect. More often than not, our usage of a word that by definition means “to admire, as a result of abilities, qualities, or achievements” is delivered as a demand, with a sense of obligation, selfishness, and even fear. Proliferated by a reductive meme culture that strips words of meaning, respect is no longer admiration, but a twisted expectation motivated by the insecure belief that people are, by default, undeserving until they prove themselves worthy.

And it feels bad, man.

If you’d like a little background noise to make this depressing “think piece” more palatable, here’s the Aretha jam you’re already thinking of.

♪ R-E-S-P-E-C-ME ♪

To start, let’s just look at the word itself. To respect is to admire. Someone did something good (probably a bunch of times) so we collectively give her a big ol’ thumbs up. And while that usage does still happen, it seems more common to hear “respect” in a watered-down, right-of-passage context. It’s not about honoring. It’s a baseline. It is the bare minimum a person must do to be considered for approval.

“Show some respect!”
“Man, no one respects me.”

and the most ubiquitous of all…

“You need to earn my respect.”

When someone says this last one, he generally does not mean, “You have to earn my admiration.” Selfish as people may be, I don’t think it’s common for one to walk into a situation, find himself skeptical of a new person, and think, “I don’t know about this guy. He’d better do something that makes me want to celebrate his noble accomplishments or I’m outta here!” To the contrary, the message he is really trying to convey is, “You have to earn my acceptance.”

As a cherry on top of this unreasonable design, once the respect is earned, it is normally acknowledged by a lukewarm, conciliatory phrase like, “You know what? You’re alright.” Wow. I’m humbled by your respect. Thanks for not laying it on too thick.

Even in a positive light, where people acknowledge a job well done with a simple “Respect,” the inferred meaning isn’t “What a success!” but more so “Not bad” or “Aight, now you’ve got my attention.”

It’s all about that ‘surprisingly impressed’ frown we all seem to make.

Respect should be a powerful sentiment, but this attitude cheapens it, while simultaneously putting a value on basic common decency. And I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that…

No one should have to earn basic common decency.

But here we are. And of course, in this day and age, what would a crappy, indecent attitude be without a proper slogan? Something that truly encapsulates the message and the meaning, while leaving just enough ambiguity to allow for additional misinterpretation. A trite, confused banner that anyone can remember, and those who live by it won’t let you forget:

Oh, fuck me. They did the “Keep Calm” thing? Of course they did.

♪ All I Want You To Do For Me(me) ♪

Before we fully dive into “Respect is earned, not given” as a phrase, let’s take a little time to understand its origin (or at least one of the most prolific examples of it in American pop culture). See below: the Godfather of all “respect is earned” memes belongs to the Don himself, Vito Corleone.

These are the top four Google Image results for “respect is earned not given don corleone.”

To be clear, here is the actual quote from the film:

“Now you come and say ‘Don Corleone, give me justice.’ But you don’t ask with respect. You don’t offer friendship. You don’t even think to call me Godfather.”

Now, Ol’ Vito C. is certainly a fascinating and multi-dimensional character, but it would be hard to call him admirable. He’s a mob boss. And while you can kind of understand his grievance — You come into my house on the day my daughter is to be married, and you ask me to do murder for money — still, he’s a murderer that demands respect and gets miffed when you don’t call him Godfather*.

*Similarly: Ever meet someone with a Ph. D. that corrects you during an introduction? “Actually, it’s Doctor Johnson.” It’s not wrong, but c’mon.

But alas, Don Corleone remains a pop culture poster child for “earning respect”. Let’s just do a quick breakdown on the four quotes/images above:

  1. Misquoted, and “these people” certainly has a dicey undertone.
  2. Almost identical to #1, but more confusing.
  3. This one throws “giving respect” straight out the fucking window and totally leans in to the notion that Until you do some shit for me, I’m just gonna sit here and give you the snarliest, scowl-iest mean mug I got.


  4. … I’m not saying all MAGA supporters feel this way, but, well, let’s just say I’m not surprised this meme exists.

So, in summation, to justify and share the gospel of “Respect is earned, not given”, we’ve misquoted a fictional character who has, at best, a dubious interpretation of respect himself, and packaged it into a meme that looks more like a threat than words of wisdom.

♪ Find Out What It Means To Me ♪

Warning: Already think this point of view is bullshit? Well, then prepare to get riled up even more, because I’m about to enforce my argument using a source that screams YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT!: Urban Dictionary.

While Urban Dictionary is by no means an authoritative or academic source for definitions, it is a valuable in respect to understanding how people actually use language. [Ex: In the image below, if you click on the hyperlinked text for never, you get the definition “1. a fucking long time.” Pretty accurate as far as I’m concerned.] The following is the Top Definition for “respect” on UD, meaning the user base deemed it to be the most satisfying* submission.

*I say “satisfying” because it would seem to me that UD Top Definitions generally rise to the top because they strike a chord with many people, rather than provide the most accurate definition.

UD;TL;DR? That’s fine. To recap, the basic tenet provided here is that one should treat others with dignity and kindness, and when this is done it will be reciprocated. I agree. That sounds balanced. Reasonable. Altruistic even!

However, let’s focus on the first two sentences of the second paragraph, the latter of which expands on the phrase/meme we’ve already been introduced to.

“Respect is earned and is never just given. BUT, you must give respect to receive respect.”

This pretty succinctly sums up the paradoxical relationship our culture has with giving and receiving respect. In essence, respect is “never just given [to you]”, but to earn respect you must give it. Soooo, wait a sec. Where does this exchange of respect begin? In a perfect world, both parties approach an encounter treating one other with mutual dignity and kindness. But in practice, it feels like we’ve created a Catch-22 where it’s unclear who is leading and who is following, which in turn muddles the giver-receiver relationship. If respect is “never just given” in a two-way street, that means no one is doing it, and therefore never earning it.

I don’t believe that many people actively engage in this overly-dissected breakdown when determining how to give and receive respect. What I do believe, though, is that many people have deconstructed that mantra into two distinct parts and misinterpreted their meaning.

  1. “Respect is earned” becomes You have to earn my respect.
  2. “[Respect] is never just given” becomes I’ll show you respect once you show it to me.

So, putting them back together, we wind up with is something that sounds more like this:

No one deserves respect until they give it, but no one gives respect for free.

Essentially, it’s a “taker’s respect.” Self-serving. Narcissistic. Guarded. All about how people treat you, rather than how you treat others. In regards to the title of this piece, this is where I think respect gets dangerous. This mentality leads to isolationism, looking at certain people as “others”, and general distrust. Cruelty and violence breed in these places. Wars are waged. They are the basic ingredients for hate, which one could fairly argue, is the opposite of respect.

♪ Ain’t Gonna Do You Wrong ♪

I would never suggest that we abandon the use of “respect” entirely. We still have many circumstances where people use the word in a positive, meaningful way.

“He paid his respects to those who came before him.”
“She is a respected member of the community.”
“R-E-S-P-E-C-T! // Take care, TCB!*”
*It’s worth noting that there are some weird, money-related power dynamics going on in this song. But whatever, it’s Aretha. Get down with it.

Plus, meanings change with usage; they change with time. It’s not a new phenomenon. It’s the advancement of language, which is an unavoidable and often beneficial thing. But right now, in what feels like a period of heightened divisiveness, the word respect is of particular importance. So if we’re going to use it as liberally as we do, let’s focus on what it means and the impact it has on us.

If respect is an admiration, then let’s reserve it for those that are truly exceptional. But if respect is to remain something we all expect and desire, then let it be inherent. Neither given nor received, but a constant— something we all possess, that doesn’t require action or confirmation. Perhaps it can be lost, but it is never gained. It exists in perpetuity. An absolute.

A new meme might be in order:

Other Work From T.J. Peters:

I hate being a white male (Opinion)

Top 10 Moments I Started Binge-drinking After Trump Did Something Awful (Humor)

The Blue Border (Poetry)