Saturday, March 5, 2011


I came across the 1960s classic To Sir, With Love today on television and it reminded me of an article I'd read concerning respect and violence.

The article is titled Shame, Guilt, and Violence, by James Gilligan published in Social Research 70:4 2003. Gilligan is a mental health professional that has worked within the prison and prison mental hospital system for 35 years at the time of writing the article. He introduces his article by sharing his experience concerning the responses he often received when he asked prisoners or mental patients why they assaulted or even killed someone. 'Time after time, they would reply, "because he disrespected me" or "he disrespected my visitor [or wife, mother, sister, girl-friend, daughter, etc]. In fact, they used that phrase so often that they abbreviated it into the slang phrase, "He dis'ed me."' (1149). Heard that phrase before?

Gilligan writes about a running battle between prison officers and a prisoner who would assault them and they would punish him. The more they punished him the more violent he became, and the more violent he became the more they punished him. They placed him in solitary confinement, deprived him of even the last few privileges and possessions a prison inmate has until there was no further punishment to which they could subject him without becoming subject to punishment themselves, and yet he continued to assault them whenever they opened his door. At that point the officers gave up and turned to Gilligan to assist them in understanding the situation that was only harming both parties to the conflict. Gilligan points out the same mutually self-defeating vicious cycle can be observed on a national and international scale and throughout history.

When Gilligan asked the prisoner 'What do you want so badly that you are willing to give up everything else in order to get it?', he astonished him by replying with perfect clarity and a kind of simple eloquence: 'Pride. Dignity. Self-esteem.' He added, 'And I'll kill every motherfucker in that cell block if I have to in order to get it.' He went on to describe how he felt the officers were attempting to strip away his last shred of dignity and self-esteem by 'disrespecting him', and said, 'I still have my pride and I won't let them take that away from me. If you ain't got pride, you got nothin.'.

Respect is a word that is often used today, and in the past. It has taken on a particular significance in the 'gangsta' sub-culture and other similar sub-cultures in our society. These 'gangsta's' appear to hold respect in high regard, however, I'd argue that their regard is in respect (pun acknowledged) of receiving respect and not giving it.

Do you know what respect means? The Oxford Dictionary offers a number of definitions. The first - feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements - tends to reflect the idea that respect has to be earned. What happens if someone's abilities, qualities, or achievements are not all that admirable? What happens if you don't even know of the person's abilities, qualities, or achievements? What about the case where a person's abilities, qualities, or achievements are the very antithesis of admirable? Are these people undeserving of your respect?

The second meaning of respect by the dictionary is: due regard for the feelings, wishes, or rights of others. This is the respect that Sidney Poitier's character showed to his students. This is the respect that Jan de Jong and Greg Palmer showed me. This is the respect that De Jong and Palmer showed everyone they encountered. Even when the person acted in a 'disrespectful' manner or in a manner that popular convention would suggest unworthy of respect.

Respect should not be, but is often considered to be, reciprocal. In a Common Sense Guide: Working With Teens, the author refers to an answer to a question why teens show respect for some and not others as being, 'because they showed me respect'. The author then asks why should a teen have to earn respect? Why should anyone have to earn respect? The author suggests that respecting them at all times, even when disciplining them, will teach them respect. Not just the meaning of the word, but the true meaning of respect.

Logically, what a 'dumb-arse idea'. If I won't show you respect until you show me respect, and you won't show me respect until I show you respect, ...

De Jong explained that respect was not enforced by his instructors, the Saito brother. Respect was part and parcel of the culture at that time in that culture. Throughout his teaching career, aka his life, he never enforced respect in his classes. In fact, he would decry the fact that some schools/teachers would rigidly enforce 'respect' through their teaching methods. That is not true respect. De Jong showed respect for one and all, and thereby taught respect, whether he intended to or not. I saw Palmer 'disrespected' by some others within the Jan de Jong Self Defence School, and I had the instinctual urge to respond; but his self-esteem and his respect of others was not tied up with their respect of him. I recall a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt that goes: 'No one can make you feel inferior without your consent'. A wiser woman and who could be considered more deserving of your respect than her philandering presidential husband, Theodore. Palmer was a fair approximation for Poitier's character in To Sir, With Love within the Jan de Jong Self Defence School. He tried to teach me, and it would appear that he succeeded to some degree, something about the true nature of respect.

So, there is a lot to learn about respect and its effects on our behaviour. However, when applied to a potentially violent situation we should appreciate the influence of the perception of respect. We are not all as enlightened as us with respect to respect after this blog. By appearing to disrespect an individual we could be fueling a violent act. It may be irrational, we may not understand it, but nonetheless, we have to deal with a person's perceptions and the influence that their instinctive desire for 'respect' can have on their behaviour.


1 comment:

  1. This is an interesting post John. I think we can show each other respect through common courtesy. If you open a door for someone, offer your seat on the bus or say 'good morning' to a stranger in the street you are saying 'I've noticed you, you matter, let me do this small thing for you'. To me this is showing respect.

    Of course, to accept a courtesy with good grace you have to respect yourself. If someone finds it hard to accept a courtesy because they think it is patronising or the person has an ulterior motive then that is just a reflection that they don't think they are worthy of receiving the courtesy. i.e. they have low self esteem.

    I think the prisoner that you talk about, though not deserving of respect, was in need of it to prop up his low self-esteem. Perhaps if he had been shown some common courtesy by his prison guards he would have stopped his violent outbursts and been able to move on a bit.

    Showing each other respect and common courtesy goes a long way towards civilising society.


Your comments make my work all the more relevant as I use them to direct my research and theorising. Thank you.