The other day I ran across a tweet that read something like this:

Sometimes people use “respect” to mean treating another individual like a real person, and sometimes they use “respect” to treat someone like an authority. And sometimes someone who’s used to being treated like an authority reacts by actions that say if you won’t treat me like an authority I won’t respect you as a person, and that’s not fair.

When I read this my first thought was to agree. My second thought was that there’s far more to this.

Of course, all individuals deserve respect as unique people. That shouldn’t even be a question.

The real question behind this tweet is what “respect” do authority figures deserve and on what basis.

In loose terms, in western society, such respect for authority figures has historically been based on position and accomplishments. The office of the President of the U.S. deserves respect [even if you dislike the individual holding that office]. So do the offices of a Representative or Senator.

But paying respect to an institutional officer-holder can be difficult if that person holds views or has acted in a way contrary to one’s beliefs [or sense of decency]. The same is true of individuals who have great accomplishments. Mozart was a great composer, but from everything I’ve read, he was also a wastrel, womanizer, and arrogant little bastard, and Wagner was even worse. Many individuals with great achievements have or have had personal lives that were anything but exemplary.

Modern media has become extraordinarily effective at uncovering such personal behavior and often magnifying it to the point that it seems difficult to respect anyone. But the reaction of too many people is to ignore the faults of those they like and magnify the faults of those they don’t like, rather than assessing authority figures on their demonstrated professional performance and expertise.

The greater problem with this media emphasis on fault-finding is that it combines with the look-it-up culture that allows people to think they know more than they do to grind down respect for professionals in almost every field. What makes this worse is the Dunning–Kruger effect, i.e., the cognitive bias where people with the lowest knowledge or ability at a task are the ones most likely to overestimate their abilities, otherwise known as Monday morning quarter-backing, and so often the least qualified individuals are the most negative and critical, and social media magnifies their impact.

As a result of these factors, over the last forty years, virtually every occupation has less public respect than in previous years. While one can certainly make a case that a lack of respect for Congress, politicians, news reporters, and car salespeople should be lower, is there any real case to say that everything is worse?

8 thoughts on “Respect”

  1. Hyperion says:

    Another hypothesis follows:

    Corruption led to World War II. Those who survived felt they should never let it happen again, leading to intolerance for corruption, a realization that people should actually do what their jobs say they should do. That led to a golden period of growth: the 1950s. Most institutions were run by people who actually cared about what they were doing. An astounding amount of research happened then.

    But subsequent generations forgot the damage corruption causes, and instead started optimizing what their positions brought them personally. Most institutions are run by administrators, mediocrities who are happy to dismiss their star employees for political gain. Those who would have been promoted at a different time find themselves on the fringes.


    Another example: in prior times, our intelligence officers would speak Russian. Now they don’t, but simply spout what they know their bosses want to hear. Ask yourself why the Ruble is so high, inflation is falling, and Russia is gaining territory if their recommended course of action (sanctions/war) accurately models reality.

    Another example: string theory — not even wrong because no one can figure out an experiment that would suggest it’s right.

    Hard times make strong people. Strong people make good times. Good times make weak people. Weak people make hard times. This is where we are. I just hope we can avoid the traditional war required to get out of these doldrums.

    1. Elon’s Toupée says:

      How did corruption lead to WWII?

      The 1950s were good for the US only because the developed nations that could have competed with them were still rebuilding. Once their competition was back on their feet, the tides began to turn (see 1970s onwards).

      Your example proves the dangers of dipping one’s pen in the company ink. (Anything Bari Weiss says should be taken with a pile of salt) Times and norms change, people need to adjust accordingly.

      Sanctions take time to have an effect and depend on how many nations will back them up. The EU hasn’t sanctioned Russian oil yet which would truly hurt. Russia has made minimal territorial gains compared to their initial plan of taking over all of Ukraine.

      Regarding US intelligence failures, I think it’s less subordinates parroting what their bosses want to hear but due to a focus on tech (Satellites and such) for their intelligence as opposed to cultivating human sources among their opponents.

      For the US, the so-called Greatest Generation won WWII, was stalemated in Korea, and lost in Vietnam. They also produced the Baby Boomers so….

      I think Mr. Modesitt said it best in Scion of Cyador: “Does the man make the times or do the times make the man?”

      1. Hyperion says:

        The corruption of the 1920s led to WWII. Revulsion at corruption was part of what motivated the Nazis.

        There are plenty of other examples if you detest Bari Weiss. Here’s another:

        The US still imports Russian Oil. Fed Chair Janet Yellen said stopping imports would be stupid.

        As to the EU, the German Producer Price Index is now over 30%, mostly due to surging inflation costs. That means hyper-inflation on the horizon, or Germany tucking its tail between its legs and reversing course. I doubt Germans will put up with these policies in the long term.

        Russia has taken 1/3 of Ukraine, if you include Crimea. That’s the size of England. I don’t consider that “minimal”. Just because the Russians don’t flatten countries before entering them, doesn’t mean they’re not winning.

        Ray McGovern and Scott Ritter, for example, would disagree with your assessment of what’s wrong with US intelligence these days. The way Kissinger has been dragged through the mud by intellectual nobodies for his reasonable comments suggests they are right. His crime? Recognizing that Russia will always impact Europe. This is hardly new. Bismark said the same: “The secret to politics is a good treaty with Russia”.

        The US didn’t “win” WWII, if by that you mean it did it alone. It is doubtful that it would have been on the winning side without its allies, British tech, Russian manpower, European physicists, etc. The fact the US hasn’t done particularly brilliantly since suggests this is the default pattern. Unfortunately, I’m not sure the American population recognizes this.

        As to LEM’s quote, it seems to me that it goes both ways: Elon is clearly Gen-X yet he is making the times.

        1. Hyperion says:

          Correction: Thea amount of Ukraine that is captured is 20%, not 1/3, but that’s still the size of England.

  2. Mayhem says:

    There’s also the old adage Respect must be earned. It’s not a constant value, and it’s view that is personal to the viewer.

    A position of Authority comes with an inherent level of respect. The actions of the holder of that position *and the actions of their peers* will raise or lower the public respect for them.

    Strong authority and consistent behaviour will engender a growing level of respect and trust. By contrast inconsistent behaviour, duplicity or an inability to hold a position will reduce respect.

    The behaviour of government officials in the West over time has caused a rising level of distrust in their positions, and a loss of public respect. Individuals are often highly regarded, especially by those who share their views, but collectively the respect is fading fast.

    The police forces in Commonwealth nations police by consent, and generally retain a lot of respect in the populace. The politicised nature of police in the US on the other hand has corroded a lot of what respect they had – a good contrast nowadays would be with the FBI compared with the G-men under Hoover.

    1. Tom says:

      Respect must be earned and kept.

      JE Hoover: Later in life and after his death, Hoover became a controversial figure as evidence of his secretive abuses of power began to surface. He was found to have routinely violated the very laws the FBI was charged with enforcing…

      Eliot Ness: an American Prohibition agent… was the leader of a famous team of law enforcement agents from Chicago, nicknamed The Untouchables. … established Ness’s posthumous fame as an incorruptible crime fighter.

      I respect Hoover but I would rather follow the example of Ness.

  3. Postagoras says:

    I think that human society has been going through a reassessment of respect for at least a hundred years. Back then, societies were built on the concept that some classes of people were better than others, with royalty at the top.
    The transparency of the 20th century exposed this as nonsense. Respect of certain occupations lingered the longest, like doctors, but as you say, that is dwindling away.
    Respect of individuals has the problem that no one is a paragon, we all have bits of heroic character and um, less heroic character.
    I believe that folks are mostly able to be respectful on an individual basis, recognizing flaws for what they are. But as you say, social media is like a huge lens, focusing on flaws, real or imagined.

  4. Robert Zeh says:

    You’ve answered your own question about why there is less respect for authority by placing this blog entry right after an entry about experts killing people by denying them pain relief.

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