Monday, May 09, 2005


"You can’t give respect unless you get it first from others." That’s the tough-guy philosophy that was articulated by a young man struggling to square some standard of decency with the rap lyrics that he and his peers invest with such authority.

I asked the adolescent standing in the school hallway to envision a room populated with individuals who embraced the sentiments he had expressed--and then to describe the verbal exchanges occurring there. When no answer was forthcoming, I supplied him with my own scenario: "You would have a room full of people all demanding that the other guy respect him first--‘You respect me.’ ‘No, you respect me!’"

The slogan seemed plausible enough at first blush, but when push came to shove, the dictum turned out to be little more than an unqualified demand for submission--a means for distinguishing top-dogs from their home-boy underlings. The latter give respect without getting it first. The former get respect by demanding it as a non-negotiable precondition. The reciprocity that forms the core of polite social intercourse is here illusory. In its place stands a hierarchy of intimidation.

This gangsta philosophy turns the traditional understanding of respect on its head. According to that discarded rule, one doesn’t merit respect without first extending it. Respect for oneself is earned based on admirable behavior. Respect for others, by contrast, is considered the default position for interpersonal relations--not an option contingent on prior recognition. By following these rules one creates a room populated by folks whose actions are the polar opposite of those presumed in the prior experiment--a room long on courtesy and short on attitude.

The new rapper rules for respect are popular because they provide a ready-made excuse for in-your-face behavior. If old fogies don’t express appreciation for anti-social slogans, low-rider jeans, and grotesque brow-piercings, "play’rs" are automatically given grounds for dissing these disapproving adults. Only those who kowtow to countercultural inclinations merit placement in the "respectable" category. Those consigned to the opposite bin have only themselves to blame.

"Me-firsters" have no obligation to defer to society--and presumably nothing to learn from it. Instead, society has an obligation to do obeisance to their dubious insights--or suffer the consequences! This "attitude" that transfoms the general obligation to act courteously into a jealously guarded prerogative isn't a formula designed to restrain youngsters from swinging bats at the heads of immature taunters.

Thanks to an industry whose corruption seems bottomless, the hard and desperate language of the street now springs glibly from the lips of impressionable youngsters--and passes for wisdom. It is a mindset promoted by entertainers and athletes whose bravado is inversely proportionate to the moral standing they have earned--a philosophy rooted in, and designed to perpetuate, failure.


Dr. Luke Van Tessel said...

I would posit that popular hip-hop is about as uninteresting as popular pop. Underground hip-hop, however--which is not necessarily a bastion of moral paradigms--does have some amazing social commentary and could easily take the Pepsi challenge with anything written by Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Jackie Wilson, or even the minor classical composers. You're right: "Respect" is even worse than your usual reasons for getting shot.

RKirk said...

I suspect that many people in our culture would concur with your observation that "amazing social commentary" is contained in various musical forms--under- or above-ground. That moderately intelligent people look to those sources for insight testifies to the intellectual vacuity and superficiality of our culture.