Respect in modern society and how it affects the Self
What is respect? In recent years, the dictionary has defined it as such:
a. a feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements. E.g. The artist was well respected because of his work.
b. a particular aspect, point, or detail. E.g. The report was accurate in every respect.
a. admire (someone or something) deeply, as a result of their abilities, qualities, or achievements. Eg. He was respected by everyone he worked with.
When you are a child, you are taught to respect your parents and your elders. Usually, children are pretty keen at this until they reach the terrible teen crisis around ages 12–13. At this point in their lives, both the veil on their eyes and that of their parents are removed. In the child’s case, this veil represented the idea that they had of their parents as idols. Whatever it was that put the parent on a pedestal for the child, is the source of their respect towards them. However, in the parents’ case, it is the image of themselves that they were projecting to the child that falls off like a mask. This event reveals the other facets of their self to the child and makes room for friction between the two. Events like this continue to happen throughout life with different people and in different contexts (husband and wife, employer and employee, friends etc.). The notion of the self has a long list of definitions yet people tend to question some more than others. The most popular definition is: a person or thing referred to with respect to complete individuality. This definition in itself leads to one questioning respect, the notion of the self and how the first thing affects the latter. We question to what extent respect affects the self, and how? We question who gets respect and why? Why is what is socially encouraged in our “organized civilization”?
Compare and contrast two views on respect (Frantz Fanon Blacks Skins, White Masks, and Annie Ernaux’s autobiography A Man’s Place).
Respect is of great importance in everyday life. It surrounds us on many levels. There is the respect of age, respect for the wise, respect of laws, cultural, traditions etc. Nowadays, “respect” has become more of a feeling rather than a concept. One gives respect if they feel it is necessary that it should be granted to someone or something. One respects the law because they feel they should, or even disrespects another human being because they feel they can (many times because they feel superior). Usually, there are two visible manners that immediately recognizable: submission and striving. A case where we see submission and it is flagrant today is for people in positions of power. People will set aside their own needs and/or priorities for people who are in placed higher in a social hierarchy. This power may come from various things (mostly material) that are all rooted in the human basic needs such as the property of shelter, resources (employment) and the money (high salary) to keep accumulating this “wealth”. Before and sometimes still today, but mostly in the 40s, 50s, and 60s in the United States, there was a level of respect given to people based on race (pure submission). “‘Look how handsome that Negro is.’/The handsome negro says, ‘Fuck you madame.’”(Fanon 94). This excerpt from the fifth chapter of Blacks Skins, White Masks clearly noted that this interaction is one of disrespect from one person to another. In this book, the main subject of discussion is the disparity between black and white people. During this period in time, the laws that hold society together explicitly expressed that respect was owed to white people more than it was to any other race in France. This scene is only considered shocking for Fanon because a black man insults a white woman in a time period where she supposedly deserves more respect than him due to the color of her skin. It’s quite difficult, in our society, for some to go against what laws are written/created by and for civilization. Right after he, a black man, claps back at this woman, he thinks “Her face colored with shame. At last, I was freed from my rumination” (Fanon 94). This is also very interesting because it allows one to evaluate the weight of how much one is respected and what they can impose on others because of certain laws. For Fanon, this woman has never earned his respect, it was simply forced onto him and other black people across the nation and the world because blacks were considered less than human. It was never a state of voluntary admiration for one another; Fanon was in a constant state of “rumination” until those words came out his mouth. We all know the saying “My liberty ends where yours begins” but in this context, the writer expresses how respect is almost like a trap, suffocating and overlapping another’s freedom. The point here is not to elaborate on the question of one’s freedom but to point out how the idea being discussed is used in a wide range of ways does not always create a positive experience. When respect is forced, it leads to destruction and pain.
On the other hand, some people manifest respect by mimicking the traits of a person they look up to. This could range from changing just the way that they speak to their whole lifestyle being that of an idol. They are even able to set goals that they will strive to meet based on the other person’s life. A clear example of this act is disclosed in Annie Ernaux’s autobiography A Man’s Place. Ernaux is a complex woman who, as soon as she is of age, leaves her home which is rooted in deep modesty, for a new life as one of the many intellectuels et normaliens of France. When her father passes away, she returns to her hometown, where she is plunged back into her past environment and like her father, recalls the shame that is felt of one’s origins. “On the train journey home that Sunday, I tried to keep my son entertained so that he would behave himself. People traveling first-class have no taste for noise and restless children. I suddenly realized with astonishment: “Now I really am bourgeois” (Ernaux 22). This little stream of her thoughts is extremely relevant. She describes with norm what she can recall from that day, but then there is a sort of switch that flips in her mind; all of a sudden she realizes she has reached the level of those that she respects so profoundly. The notion of respecting a higher class way of living or high-class society (respect for wealth) comes into play here. One can see how picturing this notion of bourgeois as something better, has caused a person to change their whole way of being. It is something so powerful that many people that reflect and live like Annie Ernaux, will leave behind everything that they cared about to gain this level of respect (a falsehood). The author has had such a deep admiration for people who belong to a higher social class than her own family, that she develops a type of obsession with belonging to this world. She ends up being what we call in the United States a “first-generation”, separate from both of the worlds she belongs to; a paradox.
When putting these two authors in dialogue (Fanon and Ernaux), we realize that “respect”, while it is a keystone to the functioning of our societies, has hidden toxicity behind it. Reviewing the above definitions of respect dated 2010 (Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper), they don’t seem to take into consideration the “I Am”.
Most philosophical thinkers take into consideration the “I Am” when discussing respect because that is really its gravitational point. I Am, therefore I must be respected. Respect should not be considered a feeling but instead should be (in Kant’s opinion) a necessity because we are all beings. All human beings should give and receive respect simply because their souls are of more value than all the wealth in the world. The definition of respect has been manipulated over the years and has caused mankind to completely disregard the human self which in turn creates chaos in society today. If we look at the concept as spiritual beings, respect is a right held by all living things that should be honored, esteemed and regarded by everyone at all times. It is not demanding. It does not encompass judgment from human customs and values. It is the capacity of seeing beyond our limitations and the human condition to the positive life force in every living thing. The concept of respect has been studied and discussed by many experts to include such great thinkers as Aristotle, Einstein, Kant, and Sartre to name a few. Einstein said and believed that “everyone should be respected as an individual, but no one should be idolized.” Kant is pretty much of the same thought as Einstein but goes much deeper by including self-respect. In Kant’s work “Metaphysics of Morals” he states that “respect is a representation of a worth that infringes on self-love” but also central to Kant’s theory is the claim that all persons are owed respect just because they are persons, free rational beings. If we look at the world today and particularly what is going on in the United States, spirituality and the respect for the human being is long gone; truly the dark age. People do not use rationality anymore to evaluate to whom and how they should attribute respect.
Fanon recognizes that rationality is not being used in his world and uses Science to prove his case. Science is considered today (in 2018), one of the most respected concepts: people will put things proven by science before any other source of information. However, this was not the case in 1952: “Scientists reluctantly admitted that the Negro was a human being; in vivo and in vitro the Negro was identical to the white man: same morphology, same histology. Reason was assured of victory on every level. I reintegrated the brotherhood of man. But I was soon disillusioned.” (Fanon 99). In this historical context, Catholicism is still the dominant entity in France (47 years after the separation of the Church and the State) and it is still justifying slavery and the marginalization of people of color. Scientists are cited as reluctant to share facts that they know are true because of the respect that they have for the Church. The most striking part about this section is that Fanon himself sees these scientific facts as an illusion. He sees it this way because his reality as a Black man in the world shows him the opposite. He is not respected by other and thus his makes him question his humanity and to say furthermore himSelf.
What do we mean when we speak about “Self”? Wikipedia says is an individual person as the object of his or her own reflective consciousness. Merriam Webster says the following:
a. an individual’s typical character or behavior — her true self was revealed
b. a person in prime condition — feel like my old self today
c. the union of elements (such as body, emotions, thoughts, and sensations) that constitute the individuality and identity of a person
How self and respect intertwine? Two main types of self are commonly considered — the self that is the ego, also called the learned, superficial self of mind and body, an egoic creation, and the Self which is sometimes called the “True Self”, the “Observing Self”, or the “Witness”. Unfortunately, the majority of human beings function from the egoic creation and not from “True Self” created by the universe including Fanon and Ernaux. The two authors DO NOT see nor consider their true Self because as we see, the notion of respect is based on what they experience and how they are treated in society. Ernaux has gained respect she feels because she has gained wealth. Fanon believes that he will never be respected because of the color of his skin. Ego has a number of different definitions but in my discussion, I will use the definition “the false concept of you”. Ernaux and Fanon both exhibit the false concept of man in their works. Ego makes one think of his own needs and benefits before thinking of the “human being” first. For example: why do I need to respect that person? He’s not great. He’s poor. He is beneath me or he doesn’t look like me (black or white). Unknownst to us, these kind of thoughts are simply the way we really feel about ourselves. Worthless, insecure, less than etc. These thoughts, coming strictly from the egoic self and, allow for disrespect of the I Am. Self-respect is the respect you have for yourself, while ego is your understanding of your own importance. An inflated ego comes from too much self-esteem, or when you realized just how “important” and “special” you are. People with a huge ego most of the time, feel unequal to others because, deep inside, they feel worthless and undeserving of respect. But when you respect yourself and believe in yourself, the ego is still naturally always present but does not play as the largest part of your actions/decisions. The person with self-respect simply appreciates him or herself, which is not contingent on success, failure, the color of your skin or any other structures and classes man has created. This allows that same respect to be extended to others. Unfortunately, due to the way society has twisted the way we think of respect, self, the quest for identity and even self-respect we are all so confused and lost. Since it is very difficult for humans to be truly conscious beings and live daily at a higher level of consciousness, we have distorted not only the terms but the concepts as well to suit our everyday lives and needs (ego).
The fragment from Ernaux’s biographical text that was cited earlier is followed by the words “It’s too late now”(Ernaux 22). She is addressing her physical self by acknowledging that there has been a drastic change to her Ego. She understands the self as spiritual (nothing to do with religion) concept but refuses to change back to its previous form. The use of time that she employs shows that she believes the changes she has gone through are irreversible and disappointing. After striving for so long to be bourgeoise, Annie Ernaux seems to realize that whom she has become is not truly who she is or was. Even though this social-class has entered every crack and seam of her life, she is still detached from it. The language used here clearly shows a split in Annie Ernaux’s definition of the self: she is both her past and her present, both modest and bourgeoise. One understands the constant state of discomfort that she is in because it is human nature to find it extenuating to be put face to face with one’s “True Self”.
This state of introspection is often painful but happens often as we age. One can’t cancel out the natural patterns of life because they want to feel, live or be regarded in a certain way. It is a natural part of being human and living. One will begin to take the time and energy to embrace their own self. Respect or lack thereof coming from another person is highly important for the formation of the personal self early on in life but we all realize it is not any of that that matters once we are in touch with our “True Self” as a spiritual being.
Sartre vs. Fanon and Ernaux
To go on a broader perspective, I would like to bring in the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre who focused more on the moral consequences of existentialist thought and would be very opposed to what Fanon and Ernaux wrote. Sartre’s 1946 lecture L’Existentialisme est un humanisme (“Existentialism is a Humanism”) claims there is no abstract nature that one is destined to fill. Instead, each of us in the world; and what we will be is then entirely up to us. Sartre believed that being human simply means having the capacity to create one’s own essence in time. Sartre said in his lecture, “my exercise of this capacity inevitably makes me totally responsible for the life I choose. Since I could always have chosen some other path in life, the one I follow is my own. Since nothing has been imposed on me from outside, there are no excuses for what I am. Since the choices I make are ones I deem best, they constitute my proposal for what any human being ought to be.” On Sartre’s view, basically, you accept the consequences of your actions. Does this mean the same in terms of respect and the effect it has on Self? Because I chose to be disrespectful, I am disrespected? The “self-respect” that we were discussing earlier is now a responsibility from his point of view. In l’Être et le néant (Being and Nothingness) (1943), Sartre elaborates on this claim by explaining that human existence is the capacity to choose whether or not to be responsible of oneself or one’s actions. Self-deception, he believed invariably involves an attempt to evade responsibility for one’s actions. As this relates to respect, we can clearly see how we make decisions on who and what to respect or not and how we use it to validate whom we think we are i.e. our “Self”. When one has not truly accepted him or herself for who they are (human being), how do you begin to do that for someone else? The ability to accept ourselves for who we really are is the way to access great connection with others, to give respect that is not forced, deserved or earned. Sartre believed the chief value of human life is faithfulness (not speaking in religious terms since Sartre was an atheist) in ourselves, sincerity in the most profound sense. In our relationships with other human beings, what we truly are is all that counts, except it is here that we are usually trying to be something we are not. This is impossible, for Sartre, since it shows a total lack of faith/respect in ourselves: to the extent that putting your faith in or waiting to be validated by someone else or some belief created by society, exposes lack of courage, “lâcheté” to be true to oneself. There are, in the end, only two choices — sincerity or self-deception, to be or not to be.
As one can see from the two authors (Fanon and Ernaux) they are clearly disturbed by their notion of what respect is or what it should look like, we witness that there is a clear connection between the pressures on society, respect and the Self in both literary works. Fanon and Ernaux clearly disclose how society, values, morals, and experiences in life make us create the self we think we want or should be including how we respect and see others. In Kant’s work, Metaphysics of Morals, and when he explains the concept of self-respect there must be a true perception of oneself, not an illusion and not an unhealthy separate self from others; an authentic spiritual self, and not external signs of unimportant privileges; a personal act of self-affirmation, and not someone else’s perhaps mistaken idea of what or who one should be. Perceiving oneself from True Self, cannot and must not be replaced by any kind of superficialities such as one’s supposed qualities or merits, nor by pride or preference nor by social or public opinion. The perception of one’s own worth should start at the base of being a human being. Any lack of considering or coming from this standpoint first will create — weak character, insecurities, instability, low morale all around chaos for the person’s inner self.
A person respecting themselves only because of what others think does not really respect themselves: their worth depends upon others’ impressions of them. These impressions are usually born from other people projecting the things they dislike about themselves on others in the first place. When one lives like this they are almost without personality. Similarly, a person who respects themselves only for their supposed, or purely external qualities, (for strength, for beauty, for wealth), clearly does not respect themselves either. Respect should be attributed to what is true and not what is temporary. So as we have seen, respect really does affect self but it must all be in its proper form to be rewarding and not rewarding in a self-gratifying way.
- Ernaux, Annie. A Man’s Place. Translated by Tanya Leslie, Seven Stories Press, 2012.
- Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. Grove Press, 2008.
- Sartre, Jean-Paul, et al. Existentialism Is a Humanism = (L’Existentialisme Est Un Humanisme) ; Including, a Commentary on The Stranger (Explication De L’Étranger). Manitoba Education and Advanced Learning, Alternate Formats, 2016.
- Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness: an Essay in Phenomenological Ontology. Translated by Sarah Richmond, Routledge, 2018.