What is respect and why it matters for democracy?

7 min readNov 15, 2021


Cover Photo by Stillness InMotion on Unsplash

We want to invite you along in a reflection on the meaning and importance of respect in human life. Why? Because we have an intuition: that respect is necessary for democracy to exist. We’ll try to be as concise as we can.

Let us begin by explaining what we mean by respect. We will then look at our notion of democracy, to finally illustrate our hypothesis on the relationship between the two. Our goal will be achieved if in the end you are thinking about the same problem, regardless of whether you share our vision or reject it.

(1) So, what is respect?

Common understanding defines it as “a feeling of appreciative, often deferential regard; esteem”. It is a feeling, like love or sadness, but different in its qualities. Fair, but that’s not enough. We could ask: what is a feeling? And then, how is it that a feeling of appreciative regard emerges?

A feeling or emotion is what organizes our experience, what gives them meaning; it is how we’re tuned to the world.

Let’s use an example. Imagine a situation where you’re in a room full of gadgets. You’re there waiting for someone. To pass the time, you observe the gadgets, read their brands, pick them up to explore, and so on. You’re focused on the devices. Suddenly a tiger comes into the room, walking and distracted. Immediately, the gadgets don’t demand any attention as gadgets, but as weapons for defense. The doors and windows become central to the experience: a minute ago you weren’t paying any attention to them. Now, you’re focused on ways to escape, not on how to pass time.

Your purposes, the physical space, the objects around, etc., changed from one second to another. The presence of the tiger changed the situation you were in. Before the tiger came in, you were a person looking for some distraction, feeling bored; the world presented you with potentially useful objects and things for that purpose. But when the tiger entered, you were transformed into a fearful person, looking for ways to defend yourself or escape. Now, the world presented you with objects as weapons, and windows as escape routes…

What underlies this change? Why did the tiger have the power to change the whole situation? It wasn’t the tiger itself: It was the judgment you made of him. The change happened because now you considered the situation as dangerous. If you hadn’t judged it as dangerous, let’s say because the tiger appeared in a cage, no such fear would have emerged, and the gadgets would not have appeared to you as weapons.

Well, we can say that emotions are the unconscious judgments upon which our engagement with the world rest. And because that judgment structures the situation, we say emotion is how we are tuned. We think so for two reasons. First, because when your judgment is changed, your feeling is transformed. Second, because it is far easier to distinguish emotions for their underlying judgments than for their neurophysiology. Sadness is the judgment of a loss; shame is judging our action as bad behavior; happiness is the second-order judgment we make about our life as a whole.

So, if respect is a feeling, what is judged in it? Let’s look at three examples.

Not long ago Lebron James tweeted about Chris Paul and his performance. It was understood as an act of respect, just as the act of buying flowers is understood as an act of love.

Why was it understood as respect? Well, because it showed deference and appreciation towards Chris Paul. Chris Paul did something (or accumulated several feats) that made Lebron judge him differently and want to share that judgement with the world. Good. However, the act of respect would not have had the social resonance it had if Lebron was not Lebron the legendary player, who recognizes one player arguably lower in the hierarchy of NBA players, as an equal. If the tweet had come from a homeless person, it would not have much relevance, would it?

This link to hierarchy is correct. Is it essential to the feeling of respect or just accidental? We think it is essential. Indeed, we think that the judgment that underlies feeling respect is about the hierarchical meaning of a relationship.

When we are told to “respect our elders”, “respect the flag”, “respect nature”, “respect the law”, we are not asked to feel admiration for these things. What we are being told is that we should treat them as superiors, or at least as equals, isn’t it? Let see it the other way around.

The image below is Scottie Pippen’s historical dunk over Patrick Ewing. It’s fair to read it as disrespectful. Pippen himself remembers the play as the most disrespectful dunk of his career. With his gesture Pippen said to Ewing something like “you’re a powerless obstacle, deserving ridicule.” It was a relevant because before they were supposed to be equals, but the gesture proposed a new hierarchical meaning, Pippen above, Ewing below. It was the opposite of Lebron’s post. And Ewing got angry because Pippen put him in a lower position, and he felt wronged, disrespected.

In the final scene of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, Kay sees how Michael Corleone’s hand is being kissed by other members of the crime “family”. It’s a gesture of respect, quite relevant in the movie because with it they recognize him as the new Godfather. Now they judge as good or fair a new hierarchical meaning in their relationship with him.

Once again, what we want to highlight is that respect is the judgement about the hierarchical meaning of the relationship. We can think of others as superiors in some way and feel that it is justified. Then, we can feel respect for them. But, if we think they’re not superior, we will feel disrespected if we’re treated as inferiors by them. And the same happens the other way around: people at the top of the hierarchy will feel disrespected if someone they considered inferior, treat them as equals.

One final thought before moving to the second part of our argument: the judgement on the hierarchy includes a sense of what are right and wrong behaviors within that hierarchy. For example, if Pippen hadn’t pushed him down and stood on top of him as he fell, Ewing probably wouldn’t have gotten so angry. That a President, or a powerful producer, is recognized as such, doesn’t allow him to ask for sex from a subordinate. When he does, he is disrespectful (among other thinks). The gesture pushes the other person down, below humanness, to the realm of objects.

(2) On democracy.

Let’s now put forward another intuition: that for democracy to exist respect must be shared amongst its members. And by the same logic the spread of disrespect would put democracy at risk. But first, same as with respect, let’s establish a definition of democracy.

Democracy is the government of the people, right? Aristocracy, monarchy, or tyranny, on the other hand, attribute government control and sovereignty to some special individuals, who are not the people. The king, the aristocrats, or the dictator, govern over the people. In the democracy, the people govern over themselves, co-govern.

Justifications for non-democratic forms of government share one thing: the promise that society will be better off if a few special people rule over others. This means that one person is superior to another, therefore he must lead the rest. He may be an envoy of God or a hero, it doesn’t matter, but they are someone special, not common like the rest. Democracy, on the other hand, does not consider anyone special. Therefore, nobody has a special right to rule over the others.

In a democratic society if someone attempts to rule over the rest, there’s a big chance of making these people unhappy. Why? First, because each person is different, meaning that happiness has a singular shape for each of us; and second, because happiness is linked to wisdom and there is no human being with supreme wisdom, so supreme he should have the right to govern. For democrats, everyone has the right and the ability to find their own road to happiness. In other words, everyone has the right to be free. That’s why democracy is the government of freedom.

If people in a community experience themselves as equals, democracy will be the preferred government. If people experience themselves as unequal, another form of government can feel legitimate.

Therefore, free people will experience others as equals, so they should never be disrespectful, at least not consciously. Respect will be shared among them. Why? Since they will never think they are superior to others, they will never be tempted to disrespect others.

(3) By this point we hope to have showed the relationship between democracy and respect. Democracy is the form of government of free persons, who respect each other because they know they are equals.

Respecting others as equals is treating them not from above or below. Because of that, the basic sign of respect is seeing the other person face to face. However, if you disrespect them, well, you will cause anger and a desire for revenge, which is the desire to restore respect, from above.

The person who disrespects others puts their own freedom at risk: the act pushes others to orient their lives towards status and hierarchy. Disrespect pushes people to experience themselves as unequal, and that will ultimately be reflected in the sorts of social relationships and political preferences people form. Therefore, the community’s support for democracy will be smaller, which means decreasing possibilities for being free.

Now, because we consider it a good thing to be free, we consider respect an idea worth living, and therefore, worth wearing.

Author Jorge Carrasquel
Explorer at Normalem

Originally published at Normalem’s Blog — The Posting Press on November 15, 2021.




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