“You can’t give respect unless you get it first.” That was the ethical maxim presented to me over a decade ago by a young black high-schooler. The assertion possesses a superficial plausibility that attends so many pop-cultural aphorisms—like the bogus observation that folks can’t love others unless they first love themselves. It would have been nice had the student put forward his dictum in my class as a topic for reflection. Instead, the saying was proffered in a hallway as justification for the chip he carried on his shoulder toward a classmate.
Fortunately, as an ethics instructor I was able to offer what I considered a convincing refutation of his motto by asking the young man to envision a room full of strangers all demanding respect of everyone else because, “You can’t give respect unless you get it first.” Under this not-so-implausible scenario, a simple meet and greet is transformed into a confrontational game of “respect chicken.” “You respect me first.” “No way! You respect me first.” No individual can respect anyone else because he or she hasn’t “first” been respected by the others. The issue at the center of this interpersonal standoff revolves around the term “first”—with one party required to submit to another and offer respect without “first” having received it. Clearly, what’s at stake here isn’t mutual respect but rather establishing a pecking order that’s akin to kissing Godfather’s ring.
By contrast, the traditional moral view is that all persons should be afforded respect unless there is some good reason not to do so. And even in the latter circumstance, politeness is, with few exceptions, the default position. The cultural basis for this practice is largely religious—grounded in the belief that all persons are created in God’s image, though one could also argue for mutual respect on philosophical (e.g. Kantian) grounds. What interests me, however, is the cultural genesis of my student’s faux-maxim. Where did he come up with this very flawed vision of respect?
In the last half-century “respect” became a very important term in black communities and especially in what is colloquially called “the hood”—neighborhoods characterized by broken families, substandard housing, and a degree of violence most Americans would find appalling. In this milieu being “respected” came to be associated more with being feared than with being the by-product of respectable behavior. Gang leaders, for example, were “respected” because of the terror they instilled in subordinates and the power they possessed to do as they pleased.
Not being “respected” thus became a challenge to one’s manhood akin to the “it’s on” or “you’ve been served” idioms. The idea that receiving respect implied acting with reasonable concern toward others was lost thanks to a survivalist environment and innumerable media images that glorified this misbegotten vision of black life via tough guy stereotypes like those made famous by Samuel L. Jackson. Meanwhile, morally condescending white liberals reinforced hip-hop and gangsta-rap perversions of civility by hailing them as authentic expressions of “black” or “African-American” culture. Thus, these self-appointed moral mandarins succeeded, as Thomas Sowell ironically describes in his book, Black Rednecks and White Liberals, in saddling blacks with a violence-soaked, respect-me-first identity akin to the racist Southern culture they had struggled against for centuries and whose origins can be traced back to the Scottish highlands.
In short, like millions of other young persons (not just African-Americans), my aggrieved student had been indoctrinated by an incestuous cadre of Hollywood, New York, and D.C. elites in an ethical formula that’s guaranteed to produce violent confrontations and resentment. What better way to keep that large cohort of individuals perpetually dissatisfied, mostly marginalized, and overwhelmingly Democrat!