Kindness and respect

I was thinking about this idea of respect as the baseline again.

It’s like this:

  • Respect is what we owe one another. It’s the basic price we (should) pay for human interaction.
  • Kindness is what we give to each other. We can choose to give it or not.

When someone offers you kindness without first giving you respect, it’s insulting.

It’s like your buddy who owes you $100 –  and isn’t paying up – buys you a soda, and expects you to be grateful.

Kindness without respect is degrading. It’s dehumanizing. It says, “You aren’t a human worthy of my respect, but let me placate you with this trinket, or distraction. Also, you should be grateful to me for getting my attention at all.”

Children get treated this way quite often.

Kindness without respect is patronizing. It’s disenfranchising. It’s right there, everyday, when people offer help without first recognizing equality. It’s right there, blatant, when people seek a connection with you but won’t recognize your autonomy. It says, “To treat you as an equal is too threatening for me, so I’ll skip that part and just pretend that we are friends. Also, you should be grateful for my outreach. For my friendship. Because I’m doing you a favor, really. Being so kind.”

Minorities get treated this way quite often.

When power is seen as a zero-sum game, kindness becomes a weapon. (Power doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game, but when it is used as a means of control, that’s exactly what it is.)

People don’t want to recognize that exerting control over others makes them responsible for an equal loss of freedom: for themselves, or for someone, somewhere.

See, respect demands that we see other people as equals. Respect demands that we understand that the balance of power is situational, constructed, not inherent. Respect demands that we see that every exercise of control requires an equal and opposite removal of freedom.

Of course, in every society, there are voluntary trade-offs. We give up freedom for security all the time. We weigh the options, we decide if it’s a good bargain, and we accept (or don’t). Giving up some amount of freedom for a corresponding amount of security is not a bad thing.

But how many of us want to give up freedom – any of it – so that someone else can have a corresponding amount of increased power? What good does that do?

Trading freedom for some other benefit in a voluntary transaction is part of every human society. It’s part of every relationship. That’s called social interaction.

But when a person, or a group of people, is forced to give up their freedom so that some other person, or group of people, can benefit, that’s called slavery.

And if you think slavery isn’t slavery unless it involves physical chains and whips, you’re missing the point.

Chains exist in many forms: they’re the things that bind a certain person, or group of people, to a very limited set of options. Chains can be economic, cultural, religious, etc. There are only specific behaviors they can perform within the limits of those chains.

Whips exist in many forms: they’re the things that cause pain when the person, or group of people, tries to break out of their chains. They are the punishments that rain down when a person attempts a behavior, or reaches for an option, that exists outside the boundaries of those chains.

And that is the real, insidious, subversive danger of kindness without respect. Kindness without respect gives people with power a way to feel better, to feel justified, to avoid looking at another human face-to-face and understanding that they benefit from that person’s pain.

Kindness without respect means that people with power never have to question why they have the power they do, how they got it, and if they should have it in the first place.