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 weak­nesses 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 ↩︎