|Apparently “respect” has
emerged as society’s favorite go-to
word when we don’t like someone or something, or they don’t like
us. Listen closely to the patter of politicians and athletes, reality-TV stars
and gang members; and you’d think all they want from life nowadays is to
Not since Rodney Dangerfield’s prime (”I get no respect: When
I was born the doctor slapped my mother”) has there been so much blather
about “respect” and “disrespect.” One of John Boehner’s
early acts upon becoming House Speaker was to tell “60 Minutes” that
President Obama had “disrespected” him. The alleged insult was the
president’s statement that Republicans were “holding hostage” middle-class
tax relief while trying to win cuts for the wealthy.
Most of us are schooled in basic respect for elders, flag, clergy, courts
and so forth. We were taught that respect was something that was earned. Somewhere
along the line, however, the concept has been inverted. Respect is no longer
measured so much by what we achieve as what we demand.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the precise moment that a term takes on new
meaning, but Aretha Franklin’s 1967 anthem, “Respect,” was
an early indicator of this particular rhetorical shift. Back then, the song underscored
reasonable goals of the civil rights and women’s rights movements. Today,
the concept of “respect” has been commandeered by those with far
less laudable objectives.
In a recent report on California gang violence, the Oakland Tribune asked
a police lieutenant why conditions are so bad. “It is usually some form
of disrespect,” he explained, “or inferred disrespect.”
Understandably, those in the poorest circumstances have little to cling to
if not self-respect. However, the misappropriation of the concept now extends
from America’s violence-torn neighborhoods to the halls of Congress. It
resonates in modern music and is amplified by social networking.
Professional athletes, who command enormous power to influence the thinking
and rhetoric of millions of Americans, are increasingly obsessed with the notion
For example, after five seasons with the Titans, quarterback Vince Young declared
that coach Jeff Fisher had “disrespected” him during the entire time
he spent in Tennessee. When Donovan McNabb joined the Washington Redskins. his
former teammates on the Philadelphia Eagles accused Mr. McNabb of disrespecting
them. Then, when Mr. McNabb was benched by his new team, he said the Redskins
coach, Mike Shanahan, was disrespecting him.
Writing in the Detroit News, Bob Wojnowski said the Pistons basketball season
has been marked by “nastiness, pouting and confusion.” This, he concluded,
was due to “a breakdown in respect for the game, respect for fans, respect
for each other.” He went on to note that the players showed a “lack
of respect” for their coach and also disrespected the team’s owner.
In baseball, the respect thing has become so twisted that if a player dares
celebrate a successful play he’s in danger of being beaned his next time
up because he “disrespected” the other team. And then there’s
Edgar Renteria, last season’s aging World Series hero for the San Francisco
Giants, who said the team showed a “lack of respect” and “total
disrespect” by offering him only a million dollars to play in 2011.
Nearly 200 years ago, Webster defined respect as: “That estimation or
honor in which men hold the distinguished worth or substantial good qualities
of others.” In the modern online Urban Dictionary, where entries are rated
by readers, the leading definition of respect is: “A quality seriously
lacking in today’s society.”
Sometimes in our living language we allow a good word to go bad, and in doing
so redefine ourselves. Today, those most adamant in demanding respect are often
the least likely to deserve any.
(c) Peter Funt. This column originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal.