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Why respect is overrated

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Donna Hicks, Ph.D., is an associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University.

As a conflict resolution specialist with 20 years of experience facilitating peaceful talks between warring parties in the Middle East, Cuba, Sri Lanka, Colombia, and Northern Ireland, you’re probably surprised to hear that I think respect is overrated.

Whenever I convene dialogues between communities in conflict, no matter where in the world I am, I hear a common plea: We demand respect. The cries always seem to fall on deaf ears.

Why is this a common lament and why does it not elicit a more compassionate reaction from the other side?

One day, while facilitating a discussion in the Middle East, it all made sense to me. I realized that the reason people become stuck in conflict is that both sides suffer unaddressed injuries to their dignity. It became clear to me that the dignity violations—the highly charged emotional experiences of being treated badly—are obstacles to peace. While people were “demanding respect,” what they were actually seeking is to be treated like a human being of value and worth. They wanted to be treated with dignity.

You don’t have to travel around the world to hear the yearning for dignity. You can hear it everywhere.

Dignity is different from respect. Dignity is something we are all born with by virtue of being human. We come into the world with both inherent value and inherent vulnerability. It is easy to accept this when we see a newborn baby. We look at it and see its preciousness; it is obvious that it has natural worth. In fact, we see that it is not only valuable but invaluable—priceless and irreplaceable. At the same time, we also see how vulnerable babies are and how much they need our care and attention.

Yet, as we grow older, we often lose sight of each other’s value and significance. We treat one another as if we don’t matter, and it creates problems in relationships. Awareness of our birthright is lost, enabling us to justify treating each other in hurtful ways.

Respect, on the other hand, is not a birthright. Respect is earned. It cannot be “demanded” because it is an honor we willingly give, and we receive it from others when we do something out of the ordinary.

When Nelson Mandela announced, after 27 years of being held as a political prisoner by the apartheid regime in South Africa, that he had no anger toward his captors, his strength and graciousness earned him respect. 

When I see the courage displayed by the young men and women in uniform who put their lives on the line for our freedom and safety, I am filled with awe. 

When I respect people, I say to myself, “I admire them. I want to be like them. They are an example of how I want to live my life.”

When I say respect is overrated, I mean to take nothing away from the amazing accomplishments of the people who have earned this distinction. Their actions speak for themselves and, if anything, they do not receive enough credit for what they do. But while “respect” can come and go based on an individual’s behavior, it is entirely created by the perception of people around them. 

A person I respect may be largely ignored by the rest of the population, and vice versa. A person respected in one culture may be despised by another. We are able to subjectively debate who deserves respect.

In this light, dignity is the baseline for all human interaction. It universally and inherently applies to all people, regardless of who they are or what they do. Just by being alive, we deserve to be treated as something of value. 

If we do something wrong, we need to be held accountable. But we also need to make the distinction between our personhood, which deserves to be treated with dignity, and our behaviors, which are open to judgment.

At the core of the human identity, we all desire the same thing: to be treated as if we matter. It is as natural as waking up in the morning. We need to be recognized, acknowledged, heard, seen, and listened to. 

We need to feel safe, be treated fairly, and be understood—these are all essential elements of dignity. You don’t have to travel around the world to hear the yearning for dignity. You can hear it everywhere human beings come in contact with one another—in our families, schools, communities, and in the workplace. That cry is our highest common denominator.

Donna Hicks, Ph.D., is an associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University. She is the author of Dignity: The Essential Role It Plays in Resolving Conflict  (Yale University Press, 2011). Visit www.DeclareDignity.com to learn more.