How can our society regain respect?

“I don’t get no respect!”
-Rodney Dangerfield

He was a little guy, munching on the taco lunch that his mother had brought into my office for him, his younger sister and herself. I was a little miffed, I won’t lie, that the family knew they had an appointment with me right after lunch, but they decided to make the appointment itself lunch. I tried to concentrate on my interview questions and assessment, shredded lettuce and ground beef flying onto the floor as I did so. I could overlook the need to vacuum my office after the visit.

What I could not overlook, at least not easily, was the outright, in-my-face, vitriolic and vocal disrespect that was shown to me by my pint-sized patient. After trying to engage him for several minutes, only to have the conversation default to mother, who was trying her best to ignore his outrageous behavior, I got this answer from him as I tried to ask one more softball question.

“What I need from you right now is for you to stop talking!”

Really? That’s what I get from a latency age patient after being in the profession for thirty years? Really?

It struck me as I thought about this scenario later in the day and for several days after this that we are, as a culture, rapidly losing any sense of what appropriate displays of respect are. It happens in my office. It happens when I am seeing folks in emergency rooms around the state. It happens in homes across the country, as children disrespect their parents. It happens in schools, as kids think that bringing weapons to school in outright defiance of rules or talking back to teachers and principals is acceptable behavior.

It happens when citizens do not respect police officers or EMS workers. It happens to the office of the president of the United States. Now, I don’t know about you, but I was always taught that I should respect the office of the presidency no matter who held it, for he could be removed for wrong doing or could be voted out after his term if he had not done a good job, but the office would remain. Nowadays, it appears that we have lost our way and no longer prescribe to this idea either.

What has happened? What is happening?

Why do we no longer respect ourselves, our institutions such as schools, churches, marriage, and others?

It seems to me that several things are adrift here, with mooring lines long since cut and nothing to hold us safely in the harbor.

Respect is not being modeled in the home.

Respect is not being taught in the schools.

Respect is not being demanded as a prerequisite to moving forward in life.

Respect is not being earned, whether at the local level or at the highest levels of government and industry.

I would challenge each of us to think hard about this.

How do we get back to teaching respect from the very beginning in the home, then have this lesson continued in the schools, and then modeled further in the workplace and beyond?

A single session when a troubled child is scattering lettuce on my floor and telling me to shut up is one thing. Training kicks in to deal with these minor frustrations.

Losing respect for each other, our government, our religious institutions, our governing documents, our social norms, and our mutually accepted ways of moving together through society is much more serious, and may have far reaching effects if we don’t act now to turn things around.

Greg Smith is a psychiatrist who blogs at gregsmithmd.

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  • Adr Born

    Well that is simple. It is the lowest common denominator’s belief that equality is unconditional when what is says is that we should not discriminate on the basis of the accidents of birth: race, gender, etc. We should respect the equal potential of every human being.

    It is a wonderful ethic but it needs careful reading. What should we make of those who waste their potential and encourage others to do the same?

    Shouldn’t we judge people on their chosen morality between myopic, ignorant, subjective egoism and selflessly objective altruism?

    Is non-judgementalism a life ethic or just a communication tool?

  • Carolyn Thomas

    This issue is pervasive in our society, and goes far beyond your “pint-sized patient” and his enabler, the mother who sat there “trying her best to ignore his outrageous behavior”. I’m guessing, however, that since you’re a psychiatrist, the mother was bringing her child to see you precisely because of her child’s intolerable behavioural problems, so there may well be medical or psychosocial reasons for this behaviour that go well beyond disrespect.

    But I see the same lack of respect in a class of average first graders when I pick up my grandchild after school. The teacher reads an end-of-day story to a circle of nicely-seated 6 year olds while three or four kids (all boys) race around the back of the classroom shooting each other with makeshift Lego guns, ignored except for the teacher’s occasional feeble: “Boys! No guns in class!” before she goes right back to trying to read the storybook despite the racket going on from the boys.

    When you write “Respect is not being demanded as a prerequisite to moving forward in life”, I believe this is sadly true. Just look at the trainwreck called Toronto’s Mayor Rob Ford, who has still somehow managed to rise to the senior echelons of his city’s government despite behaving like a vulgar buffoon with little respect for himself or those around him.

    That little kid spewing shredded lettuce and ground beef on your floor is a little Rob Ford-in-training. Hard to warn children they won’t amount to much if they don’t smarten up when you have these kinds of high-profile role models.

    But what do you suggest can be done now to “turn things around”?

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