Discussion and dialogue are essential to cultivating our perspective and world knowledge. If we do not open ourselves to diverse perspectives, we will harbor biases, safeguard weak logic, and develop false consensuses on how the world works.
Bias is inevitable. Addressing our bias is not.
If we consider ourselves open-minded, we must consider opposing viewpoints – especially to deconstruct opposing arguments. Many are satisfied with assaulting straw men. Growth-minded individuals are not.
However, dialogues fail when the people involved fail to define of key terms. This breeds frustration. Neither party appears to listen.
But it is not for lack of listening. Rather,problems occur when both individuals have distinct conversations within the same dialogue.
For example, one statement sure to foment fire and vitriolic debate is the following:
Often, debate around this topic does not progress to addressing facts or arguments. Rather, speakers wear out their voices and keyboards debating the the definition of “racist” and “racism.”
On Merriam-Webster, two definitions of “racism” push this conversation in two distinct directions:
- “racial prejudice or discrimination”
- “a political or social system founded on racism”
Those who endorse definition one are sure to disagree with the statement “black people cannot be racist.”
“What are you talking about? Of course they can be racist. Someone called me a cracker last week.”
Their basic argument is thus:
Racism is prejudice or discrimination based on race.
Black people are capable of making prejudiced statements
Therefore, black people can be racist.
However, opponents would likely endorse definition two.
“How can oppressed minorities (including African-Americans) be racists in a society that systematically oppresses them by virtue of their race? Those who sit low in the racial strata cannot oppress those above them.”
So their basic argument is this:
Racism is the systematic oppression of one race by another race.
Black people are an oppressed racial group.
Therefore, black people cannot be racist.
As the debate rages and emotions boil over, who stops to consider that these arguments are not mutually exclusive? Yes, African-Americans are an oppressed racial group in the Americas via a historical legacy of slavery and institutionalized racism. And yes, African-Americans are capable of making prejudiced statements. All people are. Neither side of this debate addresses the others’ points. They aren’t even having the same conversation.
I see a similar problem in debates over the following statement.
Respect is not given. It is earned.
The affirmative points to the dictionary definition of the verb “respect”.
Respect (v) – to consider worthy of high regard.
“Why should you receive esteem if you have done nothing worthy of esteem? You entitled snowflakes need to prove you are worthy of others’ respect. It will not be handed to you. This is why participation trophies are a joke.”
Opponents point to other uses of “respect” in discourse. For example, many American classrooms have a rule to “be respectful.” I espouse this rule in my Korean classroom as well. But when people use the word “respectful”, do they mean “full of esteem and high regard.”
“I am respectful of her.”
Does this mean you hold her in high esteem? Not really. In this context, people use the word “respect” to connote basic dignity and courtesy.
But separating “respect as dignity” and “respect as esteem” feels like splitting hairs. Perhaps I don’t respect other people, but instead respect the “idea that all people should be treated with dignity.” In this case, then perhaps respect should be earned rather than given.
But then we run into the word “disrespect.”
(n) – lack of respect or courtesy.
(v) – show a lack of respect for; insult.
If respect means to hold in a high regard, then should one interpret a lukewarm or indifferent attitude as disrespect? Some ego-driven individuals think so.
I do not. I see disrespect as an active process. Just because someone doesn’t tell me I’m awesome does not mean they are disrespecting me. Disrespect necessitates an active slight or denigration.
Consider this example:
- “My direct reports do not respect me.”
- “My direct reports are disrespecting me.”
My interpretation is that (1) does not necessarily imply some kind of active or subversive act of denigration. It simply means that the direct reports do not give deference or esteem. It implies a tepid attitude, but not disrespectful behavior.
(2) on the other hand, implies a of direct attack on the speaker’s dignity or authority. It could come in the form of insults, sabotage, or other harmful action.
In short, the scope of “disrespect” does not encompass tepid or neutral attitudes.
When I observe arguments over whether respect is given or earned, I wonder if debaters are clear in their definitions of respect.
Are they speaking of deference and esteem?
“I respect him. His high-mindedness always shines through.”
Or are they speaking of dignity and humanity?
“All humans should be treated with respect.”
“We should be respectful of other viewpoints.”
“All people should be treated with dignity” and “esteem and deference should be reserved for merit and proven character” are not mutually exclusive ideas. Yet many argue as if they are.
When engaged in debate, it pays to agree on the definitions of key terms. If participants fail to clarify, then they will founder in futile frustration.
Before you debate, ensure you are having the same conversation.