What Is Respect?

Respect often seems like a meaningful and powerful word. We claim that we want others to treat us with respect, and we dislike it when others show us disrespect. But what’s the real meaning of this word?

The word respect has a number of definitions — feel free to look it up if you’d like — but in the context of relating to the beliefs of others, the most basic and fitting definition is to have “due regard” for the other person’s beliefs.

What does that mean?

Due regard means paying attention to another person’s beliefs. To regard something is to look at it. The Latin origin of the word respect also means “to look back.” Respect is just observation. To respect a belief is to observe it — to acknowledge its existence.

So the word respect doesn’t actually pack a lot of punch. It really just means looking at another person’s beliefs. You don’t have to like those beliefs. You may even think they’re stupid. But you can still respect someone’s beliefs merely by acknowledging that such beliefs exist. That a pretty low bar, wouldn’t you say?


What about the flip side?

Interestingly, the word disrespect isn’t merely the opposite of respect. Disrespect packs more punch.

To disrespect someone’s beliefs could mean ignoring those beliefs entirely, but more commonly, it means showing a lack of courtesy — i.e. being impolite. Being impolite means not showing good manners. And manners are social expectations.

So basically, if you violate other people’s expectations of how they believe you should behave towards them, that’s considered being disrespectful.

The opposite of disrespect is often what gets transplanted to supplement the rather weak definition of respect.

Consequently, the common meaning of respect is to behave as other people feel you should behave. If you violate others’ expectations in certain ways, then you’re being disrespectful. If you behave the way others feel you should behave, then you’re being respectful.

So respect is actually a form of obedience. Doesn’t that make sense in a way? Aren’t the most obedient people typically considered the most respectful? And isn’t disobedience often labeled as disrespectful?

Eye of the Beholder

Respect is very much an “eye of the beholder” concept. What one person sees as respectful could be interpreted as disrespectful by another, and vice versa. So if someone behaves as you believe people should behave, that’s a show of respect. If someone violates your expectations in ways you dislike, you may interpret that as a sign of disrespect. And from your perspective, you’d always be right.

By these definitions I could label myself as either highly respectful or highly disrespectful. On the one hand, I definitely pay attention to other people’s beliefs. I certainly don’t ignore how others think, feel, and behave. I often like to delve into someone’s beliefs when I’m getting to know them. So in that sense, I’m very respectful. I consciously observe.

On the other hand, I frequently violate other people’s expectations of how I should behave. I don’t feel compelled to follow social norms. This is often deliberate. I recognize the expected behaviors, and I consciously choose not to adhere to them. To many people this is a very disrespectful thing to do.

One person may love that I like to be honest and direct and may hold me in high regard for that. Another person may perceive me as being discourteous for the exact same behavior. Within their own frames, they’d both be right.

Respectful Relativity

Since the definitions of respect and disrespect are personal, I’ll share a personal example for you to chew on.

I think it’s wrong to forcibly impregnate, to cage, and to slaughter animals. So if someone supports this system, such as by buying animal products in restaurants or grocery stores, then they’re automatically disrespecting my beliefs. Note that I don’t feel the same about people who would hunt animals for food to survive in the wild. While I wouldn’t do that myself, I don’t automatically consider such people as being disrespectful towards my beliefs or disrespectful towards animals. But to support modern factory farming, there’s no way around it — that’s about as disrespectful as a person can get. It’s disrespectful towards animals. It’s disrespectful towards the environment. And it’s personally disrespectful towards my beliefs. Such behavior goes pretty far beyond being impolite and discourteous.

When a meat eater tells me they respect my beliefs, from their perspective they may also be right. They may require nothing more to satisfy that definition than to observe that I’m a vegan, which is pretty easy to do. But at the same time, they also qualify for my definition of disrespect.

If someone who enjoys killing people’s pets decides to refrain from killing any pets in front of you as a show of respect for your beliefs, would you give such a person credit for their politeness and courtesy? Maybe you would… I dunno. I’d be more concerned with what they’re doing to the pets — relative to that, it’s inconsequential whether or not they’re committing such violent acts in my presence.

Now would a meat eater determine that what I just shared is a sign of disrespect towards them? That depends on the person. I’m sure many would find me disrespectful. They may determine that I’m not behaving as they believe I should behave. Perhaps in their views, I’m not allowed to say that I consider supporting factory farming a show of disrespect towards my beliefs. How could I say something like that? It not only impolite and discourteous… it’s downright rude!

Then again, I’m sharing my honest thoughts and feelings on my own website and social media pages. I don’t go posting this anywhere else, although other people are free to reshare it. It’s not like I’m chasing anyone down and pushing these ideas onto them. People have to seek me out and choose to engage with me. The meat eaters who might take issue with this are always coming to me.

I see honesty as one of the highest forms of respect. I feel that I’m respecting people far more by being as honest and open as I can as I share my path of personal growth. I think it would be disrespectful to pretend to be someone I’m not, to present a false image of myself even if it’s more socially acceptable.

Can I still respect someone that I feel is disrespectful of my beliefs? I don’t see why not. I have too many readers to expect all of them to respect my beliefs. I think it’s unrealistic to expect everyone to adhere to my ethical standards. That said, I feel it would be quite phony to pretend that I feel my beliefs are being respected by those who think it’s fine to support the rape, confinement, and slaughter of animals. What does it matter if they’re doing it in front of me or not?

Is it automatically a show of disrespect to tell someone that you feel disrespected by them? I don’t think so. I think it can actually be a powerful show of respect to do this. I don’t feel my meat eating friends show any respect for my beliefs when they willingly support of a system that is so incredibly unethical, corrupt, and harmful in my view. I don’t feel I’m being at all disrespectful towards them in saying that. In fact, I believe I’m being very respectful. I honor them enough to share my truth with them.

And again, this isn’t forced upon anyone. I share this only with those who willingly choose to engage with my work. I don’t chase anyone down and push these ideas onto them. I’m not a hunter.

I know that many meat eaters consider it a show of respect to tone down their flesh consumption in the presence of vegetarians or vegans. I’m sure some veg*ans appreciate that. Personally it makes little difference to me in terms of feeling respected — it’s a drop in the bucket if I know they’ll go right on supporting factory farming when I’m not around. I’d actually consider it more honest if they didn’t make such adjustments on my behalf. If they genuinely feel like sharing a vegan meal together, great. But if they’d rather have animal products and are toning down the carnivore behavior because they want to be respectful of my beliefs, I don’t actually give them any meaningful credit for that. It doesn’t make me feel any more respected.

That said, I do actually prefer it when meat eaters don’t eat flesh in front of me, but that’s because I find the sight and smell of rotting flesh kinda disgusting — especially the smell of dead fish. So I will give them some courtesy credit for not nauseating me.

What does respect mean to you? What would you consider disrespectful? Do you believe that telling someone you feel disrespected is necessarily a show of disrespect? Or could such honesty be a deeper show of respect, perhaps even an invitation to connect on a whole new level?

You, of course, have the freedom to make your own determinations about which behaviors you consider to be respectful vs. disrespectful. And whatever you decide, you’re right. 🙂