We Have a Problem with Respect

Respect Merriam-Webster Dictionary

A feeling or understanding that someone or something is important, serious, etc., and should be treated in an appropriate way.

respect posterWhat I am learning about respect is that it isn’t only a feeling or understanding that someone is worthy of being acknowledged and treated as if they matter, it also means acting on that understanding. It means treating people with respect through your words and actions, whether it’s the people you live with or the people you share a country and a planet with. It is a sort of holding space for the complexity of humanness.

Respect is the basis for inclusion. A lack of respect leads to bullying and other harmful behaviors. I don’t know that we can all love everyone, but I do believe we can all respect everyone for their complex humanity. You cannot include people in your vision, your community, your nation that you don’t respect, that you don’t acknowledge as a human equal to you in their deserving of dignity and safe space to be who they are, whether they are a birth mother, black, trans*, autistic, a refugee from Syria, a person with unusual fetishes, or the person without a home that you pass on the city street every day. All of these humans are more than the one label we give them, which is in itself a sign of disrespect if we fail to also acknowledge that we all contain a multitude of labels within our complex identities.

Relationships and spaces are not safe for anyone if they include disrespect and bullying.

I experienced disrespect in many ways this past year. I lived with people who thought it was ok to ignore me when I spoke to them, to criticize me for how I cleaned up their messes, to not participate as a partner in caring for the home and let everyone else clean up after them without a word of gratitude, and to bully me for my introversion and birth mother grief. I shared my child with people who thought it was ok to violate our agreements and use my relationship with him as a weapon when I didn’t do what they wanted, and then cast me as the abuser. I worked for people who thought it was ok to ignore my requests to be valued, to dismiss my ideas and attempts to bring value without conversation, to ignore and neglect me, and to lie to my face on multiple occasions to protect themselves from confrontation. I was repeatedly given the message that I am not a human worthy of acknowledgement and respect, let alone safe space to have my thoughts and feelings about my experience.

But this isn’t about blame. I own that I passively endured much of this disrespectful behavior, until I stopped doing so by speaking up and telling the truth, moving out of the shared home, and ending the bullying relationships. I know I allowed myself to be disrespected because I didn’t believe I was worthy. I believed I had to earn attention, respect and love, because that’s how it felt with my mom. I believed being ignored, neglected, criticized and bullied were part of love, like it was with all of my parents growing up. I had to learn to respect myself before I could stand up for myself.

The events mentioned above were all in the past year. I could go back into my life history and find endless examples of ways I allowed myself to be disrespected by one night stands and long time lovers, by leaders I served and community members I served as a leader, and by so-called tribe who seem to believe bullying others is their psycho-spiritual right (taking the idea that everyone is a mirror of ourselves so far that they can say whatever they want to people and if the receiver is hurt by it then they are simply projecting their own stuff – it’s brilliant really because gives adult bullies the perfect justification to wreak emotional havoc on those around them and them shame their victims into feeling they are lacking in their psycho-spiritual development for reacting).

On the other hand, with Eros I experience tremendous respect and safe space for ALL of myself. In fact, he taught me some lessons in respect. He helped me learn to respect myself because he showed such incredible respect for me and he actively encouraged me to have respect for my self care and healing process no matter how it unfolded. And because I used to have a tendency to try to control how the house looked through criticizing him. He spoke up for himself and how it hurt his feelings. When I understood my impact on him I  worked to stop the behavior. In recent months we have only been disrespectful when we’ve been triggered by a conflict and our trauma fueled defenses take over. We are learning how to communicate gently when we are hurt so that we don’t trigger each other. The we avoid all the pain that comes from trauma fueled conflicts. I can’t say we’ll never fight again, but it’s rare. We don’t even get annoyed with one another anymore. We’ve learned to respect each other’s complexities, including the quirks that used to drive us crazy.

It’s the same with an intimate friend that I interact with nearly every day. We both believe deeply in community and inclusion, and our relationship has always been based on a deep mutual respect. There has not been neglect, bullying or criticism. In several years of friendship we’ve only had one significant conflict when we needed each other at the same time in totally different ways and were both disappointed. Over some time we came to a respectful understanding of one another’s experiences and returned to our intimacy.

Now that I know what a relationship based on healthy mutual respect is, I’m not interested in relationship with disrespectful people anymore. Especially bullies. I’m unwilling to passively and quietly endure disrespect from people who claim integrity and inclusion. I will no longer diminish myself and compromise my emotional safety to make others comfortable. I will no longer silently witness people use language and labels to diminish other humans, making them one dimensional and easier to treat with disrespect.

From now on I will stand up for myself and for the people in my life and in the world. I will speak up for respect because I don’t think the rampant bullying and emotional abuse and victim shaming in our culture is ok. I don’t think it’s ok that workers fear their bullying bosses and students fear their bullying teachers. I don’t think it’s ok that people feel smaller with their bullying friends and lovers. I don’t think we should stand back and watch these dynamics happen between people without speaking up for respect and inclusion in all of our homes, classrooms, offices and public spaces.

While I greatly appreciate the movements to include specific communities – women, people of color, lgbtq people, refugee people, people with disabilities, etc. – the reality is that we need to learn how to have respect and create safe spaces that include ALL people.

One of the ways to grow respect for marginalized communities is when a director casts a film/tv show/play or a conference organizer plans keynotes and panels, they should be considering potential inclusion of every visible type of person where it’s possible and appropriate.  There are actors and actresses of every color and nationality. There are experts in every field that have disabilities. Respect grows when identities are visible, their stories are told, and their authority is acknowledged.

When we write and tell stories we should be considering how to include the stories of marginalized identities as part of community narratives rather than focusing on specialized narratives for each identity.  Why do we need a queer literature section and an African-American literature section? They should be included in our libraries and bookstores, classroom syllabi, anthologies and magazines as part of the human narrative. This is how respect grows, with opportunities to learn about one another and hear each other’s stories. We learn we are so much more alike as humans when we are exposed to the complex emotional stories of others.

For myself, as I work with the conundrums of belonging and radical inclusion in a culture of division and exclusion, respect will be one of my foundations for creating safe community spaces, whether through my writing here or interactive art installations or conversation circles or whatever else I come up to further this work. This lesson was hard won and I plan to use what I’ve learned to building stronger and healthier relationships in this new stage of my life.


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