On Disrespect

An attempt to reinvent classic theories of social interaction as expressions of power
2009-02-092009-02-09 finished certainty: unlikely importance: 1

[One of my long­stand­ing social deficit­s}[.s­mall­caps} has been a deep intu­itive under­stand­ing of respect. I sim­ply did­n’t under­stand it at all, even if I coun­ter­feited it well enough to get along. Respect made no sense, it was arbi­trary. Jokes about ‘being dissed’ were funny to me pre­cisely because I had no idea what this arbi­trary thing was; clearly it was­n’t just basic cour­tesy, but beyond that I did­n’t fol­low. Nov­els like the 3 Three Mus­ke­teers nov­els were enjoy­able enough, but I did­n’t fol­low what these things about honor and respect were that D’Artag­nan and com­pany would go on about, and would kill or die for.

But peo­ple always have some rea­son for doing some­thing (even if the some­thing might as well be ran­dom). So I was well aware that I was miss­ing some­thing, and that this some­thing is very impor­tant given how often ‘respect’ is invoked in global cul­ture.

Kinds of respect

But I think I’ve finally grasped what respect is about. I now see 2 dif­fer­ent kinds of respect:

  1. True respect
  2. Social respect

True respect

True respect is the pure form. It’s what one feels for a great sci­en­tist like Isaac New­ton or Charles Dar­win: we con­sider their achieve­ments to have been enor­mously prof­itable, of high util­i­ty, and we acknowl­edge that they were extremely dif­fi­cult achieve­ments.

This respect is moral, it com­bines per­sonal like with per­sonal approval: I think Dar­win was a great guy and wish more peo­ple would emu­late him in mak­ing great dis­cov­er­ies. This approval isn’t uncon­di­tion­al, though: I tremen­dously respect Isaac New­ton, but I don’t think peo­ple should waste time as New­ton did pur­su­ing s like alche­my. (You can’t even defend his work as at least show­ing alchemy a dead end because he did­n’t pub­lish any of it.)

To be given this respect feels great. It is emo­tion­ally reward­ing to find some­one who both likes you and val­ues your accom­plish­ments. True respect is akin to love1. We value it very much.

I have no issues with this kind of respect. It’s per­fectly under­stand­able. If one speaks of how they respect Neil Arm­strong or Leif Eric­son, I know exactly what they mean, and I can eval­u­ate this kind of respect on ratio­nal grounds. The per­son did such and such things, which led to such and such con­se­quences, and so on; I can think about whether this respect is jus­ti­fied—per­haps morally good out­comes hap­pened despite that per­son and so they deserve that much less cred­it, and so on.

This kind of respect is no harder (but no eas­ier)2 to eval­u­ate than eval­u­at­ing his­tor­i­cal events. It is, ulti­mate­ly, ratio­nal.

Social respect

But of course, we use ‘respect’ in con­texts other than his­tor­i­cal dis­cus­sions or when talk­ing about accom­plish­ments (“I really respect Jim­my’s abil­ity to long-jump 13 feet!”). We see it in all sorts of other areas—news­pa­per analy­ses of global events will often say things like “The Iran­ian pub­lic opposes a shut­down of domes­tic nuclear fuel pro­duc­tion, as it finds the inter­na­tional oppro­brium dis­re­spect­ful”, or “The father found his daugh­ter’s reply dis­re­spect­ful.”

We could try to shoe­horn these exam­ples into the above frame­work, but it would­n’t really work. Is the Iran­ian pub­lic really try­ing to say some­thing about the UN’s inspec­tion pro­gram and whether it should be emu­lated or not? Intu­itive­ly, no.

And not all dis­re­spect­ful things are even peo­ple, events, or accom­plish­ments. A sim­ple red t-shirt in the wrong place in ghetto could be seen as extremely dis­re­spect­ful, but there’s no real ‘action’ about a red t-shirt (maybe it’s not even being worn) and in another con­text like the sub­urbs it would­n’t even attract a glance. A teenager sprawled across a couch could be dis­re­spect­ful or noth­ing at all; it depends on whether a par­ent is berat­ing him.

Why does social respect seem to always depend on con­text, while the other does­n’t always? After all, it does­n’t mat­ter if Charles Dar­win had writ­ten On the Ori­gin of Species at the South Pole or in an urban ghetto or NYC’s Chi­na­town.

What’s the dif­fer­ence? What’s going on?


I even­tu­ally real­ized the dif­fer­ence when read­ing a book on body lan­guage. I was tak­ing notes, and when I typed up the fol­low­ing, it sud­denly hit me what social respect was all about:

“Teenagers, in par­tic­u­lar, often will sit splayed out on a chair or bench, as a non­ver­bal way of dom­i­nat­ing their envi­ron­ment while being chas­tised by their par­ents.
This splay behav­ior is dis­re­spect­ful and shows indif­fer­ence to those in author­i­ty.
It is a ter­ri­to­r­ial dis­play that should not be encour­aged or tol­er­at­ed.”3

Pow­er. That’s what social respect is about. Power explains every­thing.

It explains why the stereo­typ­i­cal encounter between black youth about ‘diss­ing’ can esca­late so eas­ily into phys­i­cal vio­lence. It explains why gang mem­bers might kill some­one vis­i­bly wear­ing rival gang col­ors even if they would let that some­one pass unre­marked wear­ing dif­fer­ent nor­mal, and even if they know that per­son has noth­ing to do with the rival gang. It explains why adults can ‘flip out’ at small ges­tures or other signs of dis­re­spect. It explains why nations can put sym­bol­ism over sub­stance.

Fun­da­men­tal­ly, if I engage in ‘social respect’ with regard to you, then what that actu­ally means is that I engage in some mean­ing­less but annoy­ing-­to-me actions which sat­isfy your rules. Your rules may be utterly arbi­trary—­don’t wear red shirts, wear a tie, sit up in your chair, cover your yawns etc. But no mat­ter what the rule, what mes­sage is sent when I fol­low them?

It sends the mes­sage that you have power over me.

“The mas­ter Bankei was preach­ing when chal­lenged by a priest to show he com­manded respect & obe­di­ence.
Bankei replied he would do so if he would come for­ward where he could be heard.
When he did, Bankei had him move to his left, then his right.
‘You see, you are obey­ing me, & I think you very gen­tle indeed. Now please lis­ten.’”4

There’s a more gen­eral point here. Every­one is fear­ful of los­ing what power they have. Dis­re­spect can be any attempt to set or change the bal­ance of pow­er. And dis­re­spect alone can destroy some­one’s pow­er. Is it any won­der that dis­re­spect can evoke such feel­ings of fear and hos­til­ity and anger?

A teacher or par­ent may go berserk over a small point of dis­re­spect because deep down they know they have lit­tle pow­er. Their abil­ity to coerce is lim­it­ed, and that which coer­cion can com­mand is solely exter­nal behav­ior. If you are try­ing to teach a sub­ject or incul­cate a belief, there’s noth­ing what­so­ever you can do to force a pupil. You can­not reach into their brain and slap the neu­rons around into the proper con­fig­u­ra­tion.

Pupils have to be will­ing: bad grades are only as pow­er­ful as the pupil lets them be by car­ing about them. Against a juve­nile delin­quent, what can you do? Every bit of dis­re­spect indi­cates that a pupil’s will­ing­ness has eroded that much more.

Worse, if a stu­dent is dis­re­spect­ful and one can­not make them stop, the other stu­dents will observe your fail­ure and draw this con­clu­sion: your power is not as great as you thought (and they know that you will draw this con­clu­sion as well). It would be expect­ing too much of human nature to expect them to not exploit this new knowl­edge. Just observ­ing one stu­den­t’s dis­re­spect can make the other stu­dents more pow­er­ful!


Seen in this frame­work, dis­re­spect is a delib­er­ate action which makes the point that a per­son is not ‘play­ing their [the oth­er’s] game’. One can’t be dis­re­spect­ful act­ing nor­mal: if I always splay out on a chair (per­haps I have cere­bral pal­sy!), and the other per­son knows that, then my splay won’t be seen as dis­re­spect­ful. But sup­pose I nor­mally sit upright, and then while talk­ing with some­one I delib­er­ately splay out. This splay of course in no wise phys­i­cally affects that per­son or dam­ages their goods. But what it does say is:

“I know that one of your cus­tom­ary rules is that some­one talk­ing to you stands or sits upright. If I were to sit upright nor­mal­ly, I would be grant­ing you con­trol over me—‘being respect­ful’ and ‘play­ing your game’. I am mak­ing a point of not being under your con­trol, which by def­i­n­i­tion weak­ens your power and ele­vates mine.”

In this light, the splay becomes an aggres­sive action, a dec­la­ra­tion of war.


This idea even explains ‘polite­ness’. Every soci­ety has a set of small cus­toms and arbi­trary choic­es. In aggre­gate, we call some­one who invari­ably fol­lows them ‘polite’.

Now, the first expla­na­tion one thinks of for polite­ness is that it’s some sort of opti­miza­tion or effi­cient behav­ior. But this expla­na­tion does­n’t make sense in gen­er­al. This expla­na­tion might work for con­ven­tions like ‘walking/driving on the right’—there would be major inef­fi­cien­cies if every­one could­n’t agree on which side of the road to use.

But what about some­thing like hold­ing the door for some­one? This may save the sec­ond per­son a lit­tle effort, but far more is wasted by the first per­son. It isn’t even socially effi­cient: it can be very awk­ward when you hold the door for some­one too far away, or some­one does that to you, or peo­ple might be offended by you not hold­ing the door when they think they were close enough. Damned if you do… There’s noth­ing effi­cient about that! We would all be much bet­ter off never hold­ing the door for each oth­er.

Behav­iors like this sig­nal to the other per­son is, “I am will­ing to make you feel bet­ter about your­self, more pow­er­ful than you are, by engag­ing in these triv­ial actions which nev­er­the­less come at a small cost to myself.”

Polite­ness is very dis­hon­est in this sense: if you are polite, you per­form the same polite­ness rit­u­als for both the vagrant and the VIP. This is why peo­ple pre­fer a level of polite­ness between the dis­re­spect­ful and the exces­sive; the for­mer is obvi­ously dis­liked, but the lat­ter means you have no idea what the polite per­son con­sid­ers to be the power bal­ance between the two of you. They could be con­temp­tu­ously sneer­ing at you, or they could see you as an equal—but you have no idea which, because polite­ness has effaced all the sig­nals you usu­ally use to fig­ure out the peck­ing order.

And peo­ple hate not know­ing what the peck­ing order is.

See Also

  1. By ‘love’, I mean some­thing like .↩︎

  2. Obvi­ously one’s view of his­tory will change one’s respect. If you see Franklin Delano Roo­sevelt as a hero for his New Deal, then obvi­ously you will respect him more than some­one who regards the New Deal as not ame­lio­rat­ing the Great Depres­sion and rep­re­sent­ing just an expan­sion of state social­ism.↩︎

  3. pg 101, What every body is say­ing: An Ex-FBI Agen­t’s Guide to Speed-Read­ing Peo­ple; Joe Navar­ro, Dr. Mar­vin Kar­lins, ISBN 978-0-06-143289-5; 2008↩︎

  4. para­phrased from the story “Obe­di­ence”, in ↩︎