The Logic of Respect

by Daniel Tippens

In 2016, University of Toronto Professor Jordan Peterson garnered a good deal of attention in the press after he decried – and refused to comply with – Canadian legislation (Bill C-16) that would make “gender identity” and “gender expression” protected categories under their human rights act.  Among other things, the Bill made the failure to use a person’s “preferred pronoun” legally actionable; a proactive compelling of speech that Peterson observed goes far beyond the normal restrictions on language that one finds in every liberal democracy.

While the idea of legally mandating that people refer to others by their preferred pronouns is a relatively new one, the idea of making it a societal norm is not. Trans and gender activists, especially young ones on college campuses, have been advancing the notion for a while now. Their reason? They want their neighbors and fellow citizens to respect their identities, and mis-gendering disrespects them. I think that for the most part this view is based on a misunderstanding of how respect – and in particular, respect for one’s identity – works.

Suppose I am a foreigner traveling in the United States. I ask you for directions, and as I try to communicate with you by gesturing at my map and making different facial expressions, you quickly realize that I don’t speak or understand a word of English. When I am getting ready to leave, I confuse “thank you,” with “screw you” and say the latter. Given that you know that I don’t understand the meaning of these words, it would not constitute an insult – an act of disrespect – and you wouldn’t take it as such. You’d most likely chuckle, while waving goodbye.

What this shows is that a word or expression can’t signal respect or disrespect if one doesn’t understand it. If I am required, socially or otherwise, to use the pronoun ‘ze’ to refer to someone, then identity-respect is not something one can get from it. If it isn’t an insult when someone says “screw you” without knowing what the words mean, it can’t be an expression of respect when someone uses ‘ze’ without knowing what it means. Of course, it is possible to respect someone’s wishes by calling them by their preferred pronoun, even when you don’t know what it means, but that is not the same thing as respecting his or her identity.

Just to illustrate a little more; consider the common phenomenon of respecting the food in someone else’s culture. If you go to their house, without ever having tried their dishes — and they know you haven’t tried it — when you tell them with all the meaning you can muster, “your food is excellent,” they will probably look at you with puzzlement, or worse, agitation. Given that you haven’t tried their food, you don’t know what the meaning of “food” here, is, and so you can’t pay respect to it no matter how hard you try.

I think the same goes for pronouns. At best you can respect someone’s wishes, but unless you know the meaning of the words, you can’t respect their identity.

One might think this is just a practical problem — people just need to learn what all these pronouns mean, and then they can pay their proper pronoun respect. But beyond being impractical, it isn’t really possible, because the meaning of the pronouns, like ‘ze’, are the genders they refer to, and these genders are understood internally and privately. According to trans and gender activists, genders are defined by how the individual feels. If I don’t feel like a man or a woman, I may identify as non-binary, and ask to have that identity respected by being referred to as “they.” Since genders, and therefore the pronouns which refer to them, are privately and internally defined in this way, those of us who have never felt what it is like to be non-binary can’t understand what ‘they’ means in this context, much less pronouns like ‘ze’. 

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The more significant point, however, is that respect simply isn’t something that you can get by forcefully demanding it, and pushing legislation or social sanctions to require people to use respect-engendering preferred pronouns is doing precisely that.

On an interpersonal level, we know this is true. Think of that annoying teacher in grade school who happened to have his PhD, and demanded that everyone call him “Dr.” Every student would ridicule him, behind his back. The idea that the students were respecting the teacher’s identity as a PhD recipient, when forced to refer to him by his title is (respectfully) laughable. The same obviously applies when you force people to use someone’s preferred pronoun — being compelled to refer to someone as “ze” doesn’t engender any respect for the individual’s identity.

I suspect that activists think that while forcing correct pronoun use doesn’t get one respect at the individual level, it does get respect for a group. But this is a mistake for the reason just mentioned — respect simply isn’t something that can be required (even at a group level).  Rather it is something that is earned.

Think about the stigma that now surrounds the N-word. Obviously, the stigma was not always there. For much of history blacks were referred to by this derogatory word. Today, for the most part, this is not the case. To use it, in most of the country, is to invite censure and worse.

What changed? Was there a movement to make use of the N-word illegal or otherwise compel people to use different language? No. What happened was the civil rights movement — blacks came together, protested injustice, argued that awarding civil rights for blacks would not just benefit them, but everyone, and they won. They fought their way to greater protections, and came closer to enjoying equality in the U.S. This remarkable series of accomplishments and actions – protests, marches, legal victories, etc. – earned black people greater respect, and the N-word has become increasingly taboo ever since.

A similar point is illustrated by the gay community’s success in gaining marriage equality, and the stigma that is now attached to words like ‘faggot’. In 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that barring gays from marrying is unconstitutional. This was the result, among many other things, of a sustained public-perception campaign, the purpose of which was to show people that gays are much like everyone else. What they did not do was demand that the use of ‘faggot’ should become legally actionable or that ‘gay’ should become legally mandatory.

In a very short period of time, public opinion toward gays changed dramatically, culminating in a majority of Americans supporting marriage equality today. What followed was that pejorative language against gays became increasingly taboo and today is met with heavy disapproval. In the case of the gay community, what earned them respect was a combination of showing themselves to be just like everyone else in all the relevant and important ways, and earning marriage equality at the federal level.

If trans and gender activists want people to pay non-binary people respect by referring to them with their preferred pronouns, then they need to understand this crucial point: A change in language follows the acquisition of respect, it does not create it.

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Finally we come to a purely personal question — even if one could coerce respect, who would want it under such circumstances?

I am reminded of Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, in which the main character, Offred, begins covertly interacting on a more personal level with the commander, Fred. In this dystopian society, women are forced into slavery. Their value in the society of Gilead derives solely from their ability to have children, and they are not permitted any possessions, social capital, or power of any sort. Given these circumstances, when Fred makes it known to Offred that he would like to spend time with her in private, she jumps on the opportunity, seeing it as a way to secure things for her own personal gain.

Every night she kisses Fred goodbye, not out of intimacy, but because she knows that he wants it. Later, he circles behind her while she is sitting down in his office, and places his hands on her shoulders. He asks her what she thinks of what men have done to women in Gilead, and she suspects that since he is asking her opinion, he is trying to form some kind of personal connection with her.

The problem is that the whole relationship that Fred has with Offred is coerced. If Offred had the ability to do whatever she wanted, she would never interact with Fred. Indeed, before being pushed into this oppressive society, Offred had a husband, whom she thinks about and searches for every day. But, Offred knows that if she doesn’t do what the commander wants, she might be killed or harshly punished. Clearly, even if Offred did go through the motions, exhibiting love for Fred, it would be coerced. It is as though Fred were demanding that Offred love him or else be punished. My first thought when considering this was how Fred could even want love that was acquired in such a way? Wouldn’t forcing someone to love him, even indirectly, undermine any satisfaction he would get from it? Worse, wouldn’t it make him feel like he doesn’t have what it takes to get someone to love him freely?

The same questions arise with regard to forced respect. Even if one could get people to use their preferred pronouns under threat of legal sanction and even if that would secure the desired respect, who could get satisfaction from it? That is precisely what makes us feel so strange when we try to empathize with overqualified grade school teachers who demand we call them “Dr.” — we just can’t understand why someone would want forced respect in that way. Maybe I am missing something, but until I figure out what it is, I will remain puzzled by the “give me respect or else” crowd.

14 Comments »

  1. We have already gone through the shift in vocabulary that followed feminism: “chair” of the meeting, “actor” of men and women, etc. One may regard weak Sapir-Whorf as holding some truth:

    “…the position was enjoying a revival in folk theories of politically correct speech. Terms like senior citizens, hearing impaired, and learning disabled were assiduously used instead of terms like old, deaf, and dumb. Interestingly, academicians – even while rejecting the hypothesis in their work – joined others in our culture in behaving as though they believed that language could shape thought.”

    I have to admit I find sexually ambiguous names annoying – I am missing out on an important fact about that person that I would usually know automatically.

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  2. I am having a problem seeing it this way. You say,

    “Given that you know that I don’t understand the meaning of these words, it would not constitute an insult – an act of disrespect – and you wouldn’t take it as such. You’d most likely chuckle, while waving goodbye.

    What this shows is that a word or expression can’t signal respect or disrespect if one doesn’t understand it.”

    The question is whether someone can be disrespected when it was NOT the intention of the other to disrespect them. Does my attitude necessarily manifest in whether someone has or has not in fact been respected or disrespected?

    I want to say that respect seems purposeful, that you are doing something specific with intention, or at least that this is a point of view generally regarding others one has taken up. I’m just not sure that disrespect works that way. To me it seems that people can be disrespected simply by *not* *framing* *them* within an attitude of respect. That is, the *absence* of respect rather than something specifically ‘disrespectful’.

    If I simply don’t care about you, and say whatever comes to mind regardless of understanding how you will be affected by the words, does it really matter that I “didn’t understand the meaning of these words”? That is, if it doesn’t specifically matter to me how these words might affect you I cannot possibly be disrespecting you?

    That just seems strange, and it also seems to provide cover for so much bad behavior if we can summon up the excuse that “I didn’t mean it that way.” Things like racism and sexism thrive because people seldom see themselves as being the ‘bad’ guy. They are not intending to demean others, they do not understand that their words and actions cause harm, and yet people on the receiving end have been thoroughly disrespected.

    Part of disrespect, perhaps an important part, is that we do not adequately see the world as others do, and so we cannot hold only our own sense of acting virtuously as the standard of when and where disrespect has occurred. If disrespect is only in the minds of the people acting, then there may be few cases where we could point to it. Not understanding the effects of our actions is not the best cover for whether we have acted well or not.

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  3. I think the author and essay hits upon some kind of problem, maybe even crisis, that has occurred regarding the issue both of what identity is and moreover what the rules are regarding the interpersonal relations among differing identities. Perhaps a philosophic approach like the one exhibited here might be more valuable than some other approaches.

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  4. Hi Carter,

    Thanks for the comment, it certainly raises some issues that I wish I had addressed more clearly in the essay.

    “The question is whether someone can be disrespected when it was NOT the intention of the other to disrespect them. Does my attitude necessarily manifest in whether someone has or has not in fact been respected or disrespected?

    I want to say that respect seems purposeful, that you are doing something specific with intention, or at least that this is a point of view generally regarding others one has taken up. I’m just not sure that disrespect works that way. To me it seems that people can be disrespected simply by *not* *framing* *them* within an attitude of respect. That is, the *absence* of respect rather than something specifically ‘disrespectful’.”

    I said in the essay that it is possible to respect someone’s wishes by using their gender preferred pronoun without knowing what it means, but it isn’t possible to respect their identity (which is presumably what they want, or at least claim to want). So, yes, it is possible to signal respect, broadly speaking, by using a word without knowing what it means, but you can’t respect the *thing the word refers to.*

    Honestly, though, I think the situation is even worse than that. I do think that in many cases, you can’t signal respect if you don’t know the meaning of a word *even if* you have a good intention. Consider the common event of respecting the food in someone else’s culture. If you go to their house, without ever having tried their food — and they know you haven’t tried it — and you tell them with all the meaning you can muster, “your food is excellent,” they will probably look at you with puzzlement, or worse, *agitation.* Since you don’t know what the meaning of “food” here (their particular dishes) means. Given that you haven’t tried it, you can’t pay them respect *no matter how hard you try.*

    I think the same goes for pronouns. You can respect someone’s wishes, but unless you know the meaning of the words, you can’t respect *their identity.* (quick shoutout to 1970’s scholar — I was indeed trying to show a tension between ordinary social concepts like respect, the definitions people are giving of their genders, and the demands people are making).

    “If I simply don’t care about you, and say whatever comes to mind regardless of understanding how you will be affected by the words, does it really matter that I “didn’t understand the meaning of these words”? That is, if it doesn’t specifically matter to me how these words might affect you I cannot possibly be disrespecting you?”

    I’m working on another essay right now which I think will provide my answer to this. In short, I don’t think that it is the case that in all situations, if one doesn’t think about the way his/her words will affect someone, that means they don’t care in a morally relevant, and certainly blameworthy, sense.

    I’ll try to respond to more soon — especially the reference to racism and sexism (in saying I’ll respond I’m assuming you weren’t making an implicit accusation. If you were, then I doubt we’d make any headway in a dialogue here!)

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  5. Not necessarily. But it *could* be the case (or are you saying it necessarily isn’t?). Not caring seemingly can encompass just about any action, even ones that outwardly *seem* caring. And perhaps the same for actual caring. Tough love and all that.

    But would you say that disrespecting someone was ALWAYS done with that intention? The premise that “a word or expression can’t signal respect or disrespect if one doesn’t understand it” puts the entire burden on the conscience of one side of a conversation. That seems like a huge assumption.

    I remember sticking my tongue out at my mother as a child. I guess I had seen other kids do things like that, and I didn’t really understand what I was doing except that it seemed like a good thing. Until my mother slapped me in the face. That was the first and only time she ever struck me, but it taught me a lesson. I could do things unwittingly that offended other people. If I had gone through life sticking my tongue out at others simply because I did not realize I might offend them would that excuse me?

    When is *not* understanding we might be offending others actually an excuse to continue doing so? Maybe not an easy question to answer, but it simply can’t be the case that not understanding gives us universal amnesty or negates whether people ought to be offended.

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  6. Carter,

    The quote you are using is being taken a bit out of context. Remember that right after I say that words can’t signal respect if one doesn’t know the meaning, I qualify the statement by pointing out that one can still display certain sorts of respect — e.g respect for one’s wishes — but they can’t respect the *referent* of the word if they don’t know what it means. Supporting this point is my analogy with respecting the food of another culture.

    “but it simply can’t be the case that not understanding gives us universal amnesty or negates whether people ought to be offended.”

    It doesn’t give you universal amnesty. It does, however, make certain sorts of respect impossible.

    Side note: I added a short blurb toward the beginning of the OP in reaction to your concerns. Thanks again for raising them!

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  7. Dan,
    I have to be honest that I’m growing weary of such issues. I’m not Canadian, have no understanding of their politics or legal issues, and cannot comment on that. Beyond that, I’m largely in agreement with Dan K. here. I find the whole specialized language for >1% of the population ridiculous on its surface – the battle for same-sex marriage went far deeper than this and dealt with real hurt, as Kennedy noted in his decision. Just being ‘precious’ in one’s difference doesn’t get anyone anything with me. Everybody is ‘precious’ and everyone has an ax to grind. Sensitivity is for wimps.

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  8. I’m genuinely curious: (a) Do you really think that anyone is in any sense obligated to utter sentences like this: “Ze wants sugar in zer coffee”? (b) Do you really think that refusing to do so, even if asked, demonstrates that one “doesn’t care about” the person making the request? (c) Do you think this is a reasonable thing to ask of people?

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  9. I genuinely am of several minds, mostly I think because the question gets off on the wrong foot. When we arrive at examples like this things are already so tangled that almost any answer is itself troubling in some way.

    If I can backtrack to the assumption that understanding is somehow necessary to whether we can disrespect others, the question I want to ask is “Can we respect someone without knowing we are?” I can’t imagine a case where respecting isn’t something done purposefully, so it *does* seem like respect is a mental phenomenon of some sort.

    The problem is assuming that disrespect also necessarily maps out that way. When I ask myself, “Can I disrespect others without knowing I do?” The answer seems obviously that, yes, I can. Disrespect only sometimes falls out as intentional, but more often (when I am mostly guilty of it) it seems to come from having been oblivious. And that difference needs to be accounted for.

    Here is a suggestion: Respect only happens as a specific move in a game, a game moreover that others are agreeing to play.

    Sometimes disrespect is a specific move in a game under the same conditions, but occasionally it is not. Sometimes disrespect comes from the clash between the rules of incompatible games.

    So the question (c and a) you are asking is whether we have some sort of obligation to necessarily be playing the games that others ask us to, because our failure to agree to the rules of those games *can* be taken as disrespectful. What makes some games worth insisting on and others not? I think that one may be above my pay grade. But maybe it is a problem that simply needs to be continually negotiated until wide enough agreement can be reached? Not a great answer, but maybe the best we can hope for. Maybe in the end the issue is practical as much as anything…….

    Answering your question (b) I would say that you may be taking my suggestion of “doesn’t care about” far beyond my intentions. I was just starting to think this through, and that phrase seemed promising for making a certain distinction. Namely, that there does seem to be a difference between what it takes for respect and what it takes for disrespect. Would it make more sense to say “doesn’t care about in the way that the person feels matters”?

    One of the things I am trying to untangle is the idea that the conditions of disrespect are necessarily located in the contents of that person’s mind (can you be a racist only if you know you are?). I’m not sure there is a generic sense of ‘caring’ we can appeal to that covers all the possibilities. You can care about a person for any number of reasons and yet not care about them in so many other ways. And not all caring is in play necessarily in every instance of interaction. Caring, like respect, seems to be a specific move in a specific game, and we can make other moves and play other games without trouble or feeling inconsistent. It is as easy as playing chess one day and playing cards the next.

    So when you ask, “Do you really think that refusing to do so, even if asked, demonstrates that one “doesn’t care about” the person making the request?”, I think it certainly depends. That *can* be an accurate representation. It can be both an actual move in the game of disrespecting someone, and it can also be simply the absence of thinking that playing by someone else’s rules ought to be significant.

    How often can we say that we “refuse to do something” simply because we don’t care? Refusing to do something someone asks us *can* sometimes happen because we *do* care about them (Hey, go down to the corner and buy me some heroin), but more often it seems to come as a misalignment of priorities between the people. And in the sense that we disregard their wishes, we at least don’t care about their *wishes*, whether they represent caring for that person or not. Is there a connection between respecting someone and respecting their wishes? That too is complicated!

    I hope that answers you 🙂 I wanted to give you my (provisional) best because I DO care 🙂

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  10. Hah! Something funny happened while I thought I was paying attention. After posting my first comment I received notification telling me that Dan K had responded to me twice. On my notification board WordPress gives you the option of responding to that comment specifically and that is what my follow up comments were meant to do. I was imagining that they would be a part of a thread rather than stand alone comments, and I completely did *not* see Dan T’s responses. Sorry Dan T! I wasn’t purposefully ignoring you! I meant no disrespect!

    So thanks for your responses, Dan T! I really think we are pretty much on the same page as far as respect goes. I liked the example of food you presented. I might still differ on whether using the pronoun without understanding it is necessarily an example of respect. It might be taken that way, yes, but would it necessarily *be* respecting? If we did so in a rush without thinking would it be respect? If we did so under duress, at gun point, would it be respect? It might *look* *like* respect from the outside, but would it necessarily *be* respect?

    Does that make sense? In the language of my other comment to Dan K, is it the same thing to be playing a game of one’s own volition and making the same sorts of moves unintentionally, by accident, or by being forced to? Can you be respectful accidentally? (You can of course be respectful for the wrong reasons and change your mind, but needing to change your mind seems important here) Is saying you’re sorry with a gun pointed at you an example of your contrition?

    It just seems that genuine respect is neither a mistake, an accident, nor something we give by being forced into the outward ‘signals’. And this seems very different from *disrespect*, which seems to have more to do with simply standing outside (in whatever way) of the framework necessary to give actual respect. You *can* disrespect someone accidentally. You don’t have to mean it that way. If respect means following ‘the rules’ in a specific way, disrespect seems more what happens on the outside of that framework (Though as I mentioned before, disrespect can also be a specific move in an agreed game. (For whatever reason I am imagining someone taking off a glove and slapping another person. (Wearing Victorian clothes, of course)))

    I am curious if any of this made sense.

    Thanks for encouraging me to think this through!

    Cheers!

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  11. HeORSHeorIT. Pronouns are throw away words, if they give you problems, use the proper noun. Might sound a little 3rd person’y’, but no more awkward for them than trying to relearn another dozen conjugations (I mean, really, can you imagine if we were having this conversation in Spanish where there is already: I, you (familiar), you impersonal and gendered, it, ya’ll, we, them impersonal and gendered, and it (plural).). I truly think the correct response to someone you care about asking to be referred to as “ze” (a term I’ve never seen before today) is “Huh, what the hell is ze? But okay.”

    The care condition is something already picked up by several here, but I think that it offers a reframe for the whole thing. Bless Martin Buber’s heart, but you just really can’t have an “I/Thou” relationship with every soul on this planet. Most interactions are much more casual than that. “You” are my student, my professor, my public servant (fire, police, military, etc…), my customer, my contractor, and so forth. The kabuki of each of these relationships is ruled by its own rules or customs or laws, but they generally are not defined by gender, race, or any of the other current bugaboos. The words we use for these things are sometimes gendered (actress, policewoman) or even racialized (buffalo soldier), but those gendered or racialized distinctions are dropping by the wayside every time a policewoman shows just how awesome she is and the distinction seems unimportant, so we just say cop.

    But at some point, individuals come out from the crowd. The more individual they are, the more presence they have in our lives, then yes, we acquire a responsibility to respect the person they define themselves as. If we don’t like that person, we distance ourselves, not because of a pronoun or skin color, but perhaps just because they are an asshole or a flake. We bring in those of value, we respect their pronouns, or whatever, as we respect them. It is alright for everyone else to stay outside so long as we aren’t flinging poo in their general direction in order to keep them out.

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