Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

How to Be Disrespectful Respectfully

Seven strange secrets to showing maximum respect.

“You’re being disrespectful!” is an arresting accusation made as though you should never be disrespectful, as though everyone always deserves total respect.  Being respectful is treated as synonymous with being nice, disrespectful as with sinning.

And yet none of us can or should respect everything and everybody equally. To do so would be to surrender our powers of discernment, of evaluating the quality of one person’s views and actions as cleaner or better than another’s.

To accuse someone of being disrespectful is itself an act of such discernment, judging one person more inappropriate than others. We can’t live by the watchwords “criticize critical people” without being hypocritical. After all, in criticizing the critical we ourselves are being critical.

Some say the way out is to disrespect ideas and actions but not people, and yet, as you may have noticed, we can’t draw a clean line between people and their behavior, at least not one they’ll regard as clean.  Snubbing my thoughts and actions could easily snub me.  When the citizens of Syria voice their opposition to Bashar a-Assad, their president for using Scud missiles against them, he’ll feel personally snubbed, disrespected as a person, and well he should.  The extreme proves the problem. A pure ban on disrespect is unworkable.  We need a different approach to disrespect.  Disrespect is not the sin it’s made out to be.

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I reserve for me and everyone else our powers of discernment, the right to employ the full spectrum from the highest respect to the lowest, from honoring a person as inherently credible, to taking their word and actions with a grain of salt, to monitoring them skeptically, to doubting them outright, to ignoring them, to fighting them, to fighting them to the death as I think befits Assad, the ultimate show of disrespect. 

Still, like everyone I prefer being respected to being disrespected and so, doing unto others, I want to show as much respect as possible, to live and let live to the extent I can. For that I have seven rules.

1. Don’t ever say, “That’s disrespectful” as though disrespect were a sin:  Using that tried and untrue way to shut people down is hypocritical and cheating. Admit that disrespect is necessary and inevitable rather than holding the double standard whereby your disrespect is just discernment, and other people’s is simply sinful.

2. Don’t let your taste buds be the Supreme Court: We’re born discerning, grimacing disrespectfully at everything bitter. But some of what’s bitter turns out to be better than it tastes, so we should get beyond condemning everything that doesn’t immediately appeal to us.  Cultivate careful powers of discernment, reasons why you disrespect what you do, reasons that surpass a baby’s whiny “I don’t like it!”

3. Swap shoes: Before you do any serious disrespecting put yourself snugly in the shoes of the person you disrespect. Be fluently capable of making the best case possible for their position as though you were their talented lawyer and advocate. See things from their side. Live by the tautological watchwords “If I were you, I’d be doing exactly what you’re doing.”

4. Localize the problem as much as possible:  If it’s what they’re saying, say that you disrespect that and only that.  If it’s what they do over and over, disrespect that and only that.  Still, don’t assume that you can draw that clean line.  They may be hurt and offended to their core even if you just show disrespect for a corner of their behavior.

5. Walk away if you can: The saying, “Don’t fight with a pig, you’ll just get dirty and the pig likes it,” is a great reminder that if you can walk away, you should. Walking away from someone you disrespect is often the most respectful way to show your disrespect, not that it will necessarily be taken that way. And remember that sometimes you can’t walk away. The poor citizens of Syria can’t. Sometimes you’re stuck, morally obligated to fight with a pig even though you’ll just get dirty and the pig likes it.

6. Recognize that disrespect is double-edged: Not conveying your disrespect can be as disrespectful as conveying it. When you humor people, you’re disrespectfully treating them as incapable of handling your disrespect.  When you convey your disrespect, you’re honoring their capacity to live and learn from feedback. Saying or not saying what you think can be taken as both disrespectful and respectful, as is evident in the way people put us in a double bind demanding that we respect them by being honest with them, and yet also demanding that we respect them by being diplomatic with them.  Respect their ambivalence and face into the tough judgment call we all have to make, truth or care, should you speak your truth or just express care by shutting up.

7. Wear your self-confidence like a Hazmat suit: Ironically, the more self-certain you are, the more respectful you’ll be.  Free from fear that other people’s beliefs will contaminate you, you don’t have to hose them down anxiously before their disease infects you.  Conversely, the more you fear that their beliefs will rub off on you, the more urgently you’ll need to purge the air of them, an urgency they can easily interpreted as aggression.

In sum, if you cultivate careful powers of discernment, stop feeling like it’s sinful to have those powers, face into the challenge of figuring out when to speak your mind and when to bite your lip, and calmly hold your cultivated opinions as not easily perturbed, you’ll be able to show disrespect as respectfully as humanly possible.

Grant me the sharp tongue to express my disrespect when it will prove helpful, the bit lip to keep my disrespect to myself when it will prove harmful, and the wisdom to know the difference. 

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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