Friday, 20 November 2015

Respect, How Sesame Street Got It Wrong.

One of the challenges I’ve found with having kids is that simple questions can be harder than they seem at first. Defining “uncle” to a three-year-old mind, with a three-year-Old’s attention span can be tricky, and a parent can see the language through fresh eyes, and a teeth-grinding headache.

One definition that I wrestled with for years is ‘Respect.” Try it; it shouldn’t surprise you that it’s a slippery one.

This changed one morning when Sesame Street was on, and ‘respect’ was the word of the day. Naturally, I was tickled pink; Sesame Street usually has some pretty solid educational chops, so I thought that my long dilemma was over.

Their definition was this: “Treating other people how they want to be treated.”

Nope. No no no hot-water-burn-baby NO! (hope you caught the Rainman reference, or I’m going to seem like one sick fuck) And here’s why:

How does a bully want to be treated? Full submission and humiliation for their amusement. Submitting to that would be indulgent and self-erasing psychic suicide.

Or the extremely drunk girl who tried to drag me into the ladies room of a pub for a few minutes of sweaty affection. Treating her how she wanted to be treated would be exploitative, and scummy on my part. It’s not hard to see that it would be more respectful to check-in with her affections after she had slept it off (I did, and she was over it).

So in a moment of inspiration, I told my child what ‘respect’ meant: treating people as though they were smart and responsible. That night, I updated it to “kind, smart and responsible.”

By Jove, I think I got it!

“Kind” is pretty self-explanatory; engaging in conversation without attack, and honestly trying to understand the perspective of the other. By “responsible,” I mean taking ownership of our own words and actions. No blaming, and no making excuses.

“Smart” is a little trickier. Not everyone is born with the same mental horsepower, and only so much can be learned. Likewise, there are lots of people who are gifted in academic smarts, but are bloomin’ morons in other areas. When I say “smart,” I’m thinking of someone who is reasonably aware of the consequences of actions, can keep their observations in their context, and above all, know what they don’t know.

But here is where the crash-test-of-ideas is important. Back when I was young, single, chronic, and spending a lot of time by myself, I thought these insights made me a freaking genius. When I sobered up, I got quite a humbled, and I learned the value of peer review. I think that peer reviewing in a blog would be better than casual conversation, because it gives people time to digest and formulate a better response than a right-now reply. At the same time, nothing beats the dynamics of real flesh-and-blood conversation after the brains have had time to digest individually

I find this one to be particularly important to nail down. A lot of people are talking about respecting others; a lot of people with authority positions (schools and employers), are demanding that you respect your peers, on pain of banishment. However, their “respect” seems more indulgent than anything resembling equality.

I think that this definition can solve a lot of problems. If people keep this definition at the front of our minds during difficult conversations, we could get a lot further, a lot faster.

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