Hearing the word "respect," one might be reminded of the late comedian Rodney Dangerfield, who never got any. But, in the real world, callous lack of respect contributes powerfully to inter-ethnic and inter-religious violence and death.
I recently received two e-mails that demonstrated how disrespect poisons relations between religions. An extremist Israeli rabbi described non-Jews as "donkeys" whose purpose is to serve Jews. A radical Islamic cleric in Syria characterized Jews as "pigs and monkeys." Then there is the fundamentalist preacher in Kansas who preaches that "God hates fags." These, of course, are flagrant examples of bigotry; but such contemptuous language has power, because these individuals have followers.
Disrespect and trash-talk have become far too common on the Internet, in some tragic cases leading to suicide by the youthful recipients of hate-filled missives. To paraphrase the proverb we learned as children, sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can break my spirit.
Respect-filled words also have power. Gandhi called India's outcaste members "harijan," God's people. As a result, outcastes now have constitutional protections in India, even though their situation is still far from ideal. Pope John Paul II described Jews as "our elder brothers in faith." Such statements, combined with his historic outreach to the Jewish people and first-ever visit by a pope to Rome's ancient synagogue, have immensely improved Catholic-Jewish relations. President George W. Bush, in a speech shortly after 9/11, stressed that Islam is not a religion that condones terror. The number of hate crimes against Muslims in the days following was relatively low.
"Respect" is derived from a Latin word meaning to look again — to take a second look — and that is precisely what is required for people to treat one another respectfully and with dignity. One might, for example, think that the teachings of another religion are flat-out wrong, but a next-door neighbor of that faith has proven herself to be a good and kind person. Consequently, one respects the person without necessarily approving of the creed.
It may take a deliberate act of will to respect someone of a very different religious, or a non-religious, world view, or someone whose political outlook is diametrically different from our own. I have a shirt-tail relative whose views run counter to mine on almost every contemporary issue — and he's sometimes not very diplomatic in expressing his ideas. Yet, taking a second look, I realize that he cares deeply about our nation, his family and Israel — all concerns that I share. So I take a deep breath and summon up the respect for him that conscience requires.
All of the world's major faiths have some form of the golden rule: "Love your neighbor as yourself"; or "That which is hateful to you, don't do to another."
But, if love seems unrealistic, strive for respect. Perhaps love will follow, but respect will keep interpersonal relations civil.
In fact, respect and civility are intertwined virtues that complement and reinforce each other. The recently-completed political season could have used both. Hardball politics does not need to be derisive politics, yet one wonders — after the rudeness both of the recent campaign and the past few years — whether the polity, open-mindedness and yes, respect, needed to do the people's business and promote the common good can prevail.
During my quarter century as a teacher at Cal State Fullerton, the janitor on my floor was an intellectually challenged man whose warmth and wit brightened the days of my colleagues and me. He always, for example, remembered my birthday and the Jewish holidays. We, in turn, respected him, took up collections for his birthday and always had time to chat with him even when preparing for an upcoming class. There was mutual respect here, sometimes bordering on love.
And so, I make a modest proposal for all of us: Let respect for others be a silver rule, a base-line virtue that will keep the peace and promote tolerance for those with very different world views from our own but a common humanity.
BENJAMIN J. HUBBARD is professor emeritus of comparative religion at Cal State Fullerton and a Costa Mesa resident.