The Danger of Compulsory Respect

Compulsory respect. It’s not a phrase that’s mentioned a whole lot, and not a concept that’s discussed a whole lot. While it’s somewhat self-explanatory, I want to clarify what compulsory respect means before we really get into talking about it. To me, compulsory respect is what you get when society, authority figures, family members, or even peers communicate to an individual that everyone who falls in a certain category is to be respected, deferred to, and sometimes even awed to the point of hero-worship. It’s usually implanted in us in childhood through phrases that are seldom thought very much about by the people who say them. Phrases like “respect your elders” or “respect your family members” to “always listen to your teachers” to “respect the military” and “always show police officers proper respect” to the more abstract “love your country” and “always show respect to the flag.” Of course there are a thousand more phrases where these come from, but these capture the a few of the main areas that we are taught compulsory respect.

(Trigger Warning ahead for discussion of child abuse, rape, sexual abuse, drugs and other potentially disturbing topics – I will not go into excessive detail about these acts but that of course does not mean the discussion of the topics themselves won’t be triggering, so please use your judgement about whether to read on and whether you need to stop. Take care of yourselves.)

These statements have a lot to them, and often times we grow up hearing them so much in various ways that we don’t give them a second thought as adults. However, it’s not just troubling that we don’t analyze them, and likely end up perpetuating these beliefs as adults; it’s frightening that children are told these things in the first place. Now, this article is titled “The Dangers of Compulsory Respect” for a reason, because I’m going to examine the possible dangers that come from instilling these beliefs in our children. However, I’m not going to structure this like I would a typical article where the most dangerous aspect is the last I discuss. That’s because the most dangerous ramification in this case is rape, molestation, and sexual harassment, and I don’t think those are topics that should be written into an article as bait to get readers through the articles. That would be an incredible disservice to survivors, and it would be a disservice to you, because if there’s anything I want you to read, it’s how these societal beliefs can lead to children, teenagers, and adults experiencing these horrific acts of sexual violence. I will go on afterward to discuss the other dangers, but this is where I choose to start.

We consistently tell children that the judgement of others is better than their own, which is such an incredibly dangerous thing to want them to believe in a country where even the under-reported statistics we have available show that 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys are victims of sexual abuse. Studies also report that 60% of victims of sexual abuse were abused by someone in their social circle, and only 12% were abused by someone they did not know. So what does this mean as far as compulsory respect? Another study reported that 30% of perpetrators of child sexual abuse were family members of the victim. This means that the majority of the time children are being victimized by the exact people they are constantly being told to respect and listen to regardless of their own intuition, judgement, or discomfort. You may be thinking, “that’s so extreme. Kids can separate the idea of respecting a teacher and respecting a potential abuser.” And it’s true that some children can. However, just like abusers are much more likely to be someone the victim knows as opposed to the societal “stranger danger” trope, abusers do not act in the ways many people assume they do. If you are unfamiliar with what “grooming” is in regards to sexual abuse, this page explains the process that abusers use to gain the trust of victims (again Trigger Warning for that link. It’s not necessarily graphic, but the subject matter is disturbing and made me mildly dissociate for quite a while).

So part of the problem is that our societal beliefs about things like sexual abuse and rape are often painfully wrong. They have been evolving, but still this 2010 study that pits expert interviews with interviews of average citizens shows that not only do many Americans not know or accept that being raped by a stranger is far less common than being raped by someone the victim knows and possibly trusts, they also still see rape as it might be depicted in a 1950s crime movie, stating in interviews that they believe it mostly happens in poor, urban environments especially in dark, isolated alleys where passing women are grabbed by a stranger. Participants also stated that they saw a lack of education as a strong predictor of whether or not someone becomes a rapist, as well as perpetuating victim blaming by answering that they believed victims were victims because they were “vulnerable.” While this study isn’t exactly generalizable to the entire populous of the United States because it only contained interviews of 20 people, and no statistical analysis was done to determine the answers given might be representative, what the takeaway from the research is is to show that these old myths about rape are still very much alive in our society. And it’s these myths and others like it that make it seem harmless to tell a child to “respect their elders” or “listen to their teachers.” Adults who see rape or sexual abuse as something that would only happen to their child if they let them walk alone in dark alleys or whatever other trope comes to mind likely never think about the possibility that instilling in their children that they must listen to the adults in their life is a very dangerous prospect.

It’s impossible to know how often victims of sexual abuse, especially child victims, feel that very real conflict  between feeling at heart that what they’re being told to do is wrong or not something they want to do, and the knowledge that this is a person they’ve been directly told to listen to, not talk back to, and do as they say. But it my mind it doesn’t matter if ending these aspects of compulsory respect put children at 100 times higher risk for sexual abuse, or if they don’t make any difference. If there’s a logical path that could even hypothetically make children more vulnerable to sexual abuse, then shouldn’t we eliminate it out of principle? If that line of thought doesn’t work for you, try this little thought experiment: say you have a child. Now assume one person in your social circle is a child molester/sex offender (which is more likely than any of us would like to admit). Obviously you don’t know this person is a sex offender, but if you did, would you want to tell your child repeatedly and sternly that they absolutely have to show that person the utmost respect and do as they say? Hopefully there’s not one person reading this who answered yes. So what’s the answer? That question I will answer at the end. Not because I want to bait you with the information, but because the answer will very likely be similar for the different cases I’m going to talk about.

So I’m going to move on to some different consequences of compulsory respect now, and as I implied at the beginning of this article, the consequences I talk about from here on out are likely going to have a massive drop in severity due to the fact that we discussed what I consider to be the most grave consequence first. This particular aspect is very important to me, but it’s not likely end up causing serious harm to anyone. What I’m talking about is many ways we’re told to “respect the military” and “respect our Country.” If you don’t take your hats off and/or put your hand on your heart during the National Anthem, it feels like an act of treason, especially if you’re surrounded by tens of thousands of baseball or football fans. It’s the same way with saying the “Pledge of Allegiance” (which actually acts as both a way compulsory Patriotism is expressed and enforced) in school, except that you’re possibly under a bigger microscope. Add it how we have to respectfully talk about the President (though that one seems to be becoming less important), have a respectful awe toward any member of the military or veteran we see even if we don’t interact with them, the bizarre rules about how we’re supposed to treat the American flag, the self-righteous attitude people get if you indicate you’re not going to vote, the list goes on. There’s a million and one ways Patriotism is drilled into us on an everyday basis.

But what if you don’t see Patriotism as a good thing? What if you don’t want to put a blanket over the Country and say “everything about this is good and perfect and ‘merica”? Well, yes, you absolutely have the right not to take part in the many aspects of compulsory patriotism. There will be weird looks, eye rolls, people wanting to argue with you, and the like, but it’s not likely to cause you any harm. The consequences of teaching these things to our children are more of a principled nature than a physical or mental harm nature. It’s along the lines of teaching children how to think instead of what to think. It took me until I was maybe 20 years old to finally ditch my respect for all those rituals, and to realize that while, yes, many members of the armed services do deserve respect if only for risking their lives to do what they believed was right, that doesn’t mean that everyone associated with the military deserves respect. It’s impossible to tell who does and who doesn’t, but personally, while I would never disrespect a member of the armed services solely because of their affiliation with the military, I opt not to view their military status as a reason that I should automatically respect them. It’s neutral. Because do I know their motives for joining the military? No. Do I know whether or not they were involved in some incident like what happened at Abu Ghraib? No. Furthermore do I know if they’re the type of person I would respect if I got to know them? No. I know nothing about them, and therefore I choose to keep my opinion neutral. Additionally, I refuse to take part in any kind of broad-strokes appreciation bordering on worship for something as nuanced as a Country. I have decided these things, but for most of my life, I stood in awe at everyone I saw in a military uniform. I got misty-eyed at the national anthem. I proudly said every word of the pledge of allegiance. All as I was merely developing the analytical skills that would allow me to assess my beliefs, much less the ability apply those skills to beliefs that were already deeply ingrained in me.

So what’s the damage? What’s the actual harm that comes out of this? The harm is the same as passing down any beliefs to your children without teaching them to evaluate them based on their own values which they will develop over time. Sure, there’ll be some people who question the beliefs they were handed down. Some will decide to go in a different direction, and some will decide they’re happy where they are. But the bigger danger is for the people who won’t question, maybe because they don’t see a need to, maybe because those beliefs are so deeply ingrained that they don’t even think about questioning them, maybe because they feel their efforts are better spent on things other than self-discovery, maybe because they don’t have time to. There’s a plethora of reasons someone might not question the beliefs handed down to them. Sometimes this is fine. But sometimes it leads to things like perpetuation of racist, homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic, and etc. beliefs for at least another generation. Sometimes it leads to people who might have ended up with completely different values and beliefs had they had the chance to come to them themselves, stuck their entire lives with the same divisive and hateful views as their parents. It also breeds an unquestioning subservience to the government and military that not only could be dangerous, but is completely contrary to what democracy is based on. Patriotism and Nationalism are such huge ideas that all of these societal ills are often packed in with them by the simple idea “this is who and what is and should represent America, and these are the things that are anti-American.” With specific regard to Compulsory Patriotism, it often leads to millions of people who grew up being told in dozens of ways that not only is America a perfect country, it’s also blessed by god. And that. That has an amazing amount of potentially dangerous outcomes, especially when combined with other beliefs.

Now, for my last example of compulsory respect, I’m actually going to be talking about the opposite: compulsory disrespect. You may have a hard time thinking of a case in which we’re taught en mass to disrespect certain types of people. Obviously racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, ableism, etc. are rampant in our society and definitely do get passed on and taught by the people around us, as I mentioned with compulsory Patriotism. But I wouldn’t exactly lump these social problems with compulsory respect, if, for anything, because often they’re not explicitly taught to us when we grow up (obviously with exceptions). These discriminatory and hate-based beliefs are a perpetuated in a way that’s a little more complex than the typical mechanism of compulsory respect. To be sure, compulsory respect isn’t just enforced and taught by the platitudes I’ve repeated here, but that is a major vehicle for it. Meanwhile things like racism and sexism have so many insidious and almost invisible intricate mechanisms that ensure they are passed down to new generations – everything from movies, to jokes your friends make, to comments your parents make about the news, to the news itself, to what’s taught in your school, etc., etc., etc.

(Heads up, the following few paragraphs on this last point ended up being likely the most graphic and/or disturbing of the article. So if you hesitantly passed the first Trigger Warning, I would like to issue a stronger one [especially for the links cited] going ahead. I’m not saying by any measure that the reading is going to be senselessly graphic or needlessly detailed, but it disturbed me to write about it, so take that as you will.)

So if that’s not what I mean by compulsory disrespect, what is? Criminals. The incarcerated. The formerly incarcerated. The people we suspect to be criminals based off of racist tropes and beliefs. Now, obviously there nuances here. If someone robbed your house while you were asleep and you suffered trauma from that, you’re probably not going to respect them. The same could likely be said for anyone who commits a crime against you or a loved one. What I’m more talking about is people that you don’t know at all, whose crimes you may not know at all, whose trial process may or may not have been fair. We have a tendency in this country to take up the mentality “criminals deserve whatever they get, and they certainly don’t deserve sympathy.” We also have a tendency to collectively forget about them. Prisons are overcrowded and some are resorting to inhumane methods to house and care for their overpopulated facilities? Who cares, they’re prisoners. The Bureau of Justice Statistics shows 4.5% of prisoners (TW link) in the U.S. are raped in a given 12 month period? Well that just seems to us like great comedic material (TW link) for R-Rated “comedies” to god damn Bugs Bunny and Spongebob Squarepants. Right? It’s all a big fucking laugh! Because they aren’t supposed to be respected. They broke the law which apparently means we have no motherfucking human compassion when brutalized in a place they literally can’t escape from. They don’t get to be treated as human beings, right? Because that’s what we as a society are saying.

In case you’re thinking “well it’s probably all child molesters,” wrong again. that study by the Human Rights Watch (TW link) which was sourced by the article I linked to earlier said explicitly that “although the vast majority of victims of prison rape are incarcerated for other crimes, it is apparent that inmates convicted of sex crimes against minors, if their crimes become known to other inmates, are much more apt to be targeted for sexual abuse in prison.” So while yes, child molesters are targeted if their crimes are known, (A) it’s some pretty fucking murky waters to say they deserve it – personally that’s not something I care to speculate the morality of, and (B) they do not represent the majority of victims. The HRW found that what makes inmates likely targets of “the vast majority” of prison rapes are things like feminine features or mannerisms, being gay, being small, being young, being a first-time offender, and seeming passive among other things. Several of these are exemplified in the honestly gut-wrenching case of Dee Farmer (from the HRW link, though again TW) who was a trans woman and was sent to a male prison. She was raped not two weeks into her stay. This is the kind of thing we’re turning away from on purpose because we, as a society, care so little about anyone who’s committed any crime. Think of those two aspects: being a first-time offender and being young. This means that young people who maybe got caught up with a gang, or their friends talked them into being the getaway driver for a bank robbery, or maybe they stole a damn car. These young people, some maybe just months away from being tried as a juvenile, are now being sentenced by their own government to be confined to a place where they are drastically statistically more likely of being raped, an event that will change their entire lives perhaps even more than just being sent to prison in the first place will.

(TW for drugs ahead)

But let’s move on from the truly terrifying conditions these people are sent into, of which I didn’t get into the sickening amount of guard-on-inmate violence and guard-on-inmate sexual assault and rape at women’s prisons, and get to the people. I talked a little bit about the type of person that might be sent to prison just now at the end of the last paragraph, but there’s so much more. We refuse to see each individual prisoner as the individual they are. We refuse to even differentiate between people who did something or multiple things where we can understand why they’re incarcerated for a long time, and the people that got years, potentially decades for nonviolent crimes because of mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Someone caught with 280g of Crack and intent to distribute? Best case scenario is 10 years in prison. That’s if the person doesn’t fight or cause bodily injury to arresting officers. In that case it’s 20 years in prison, at least. Do you know how much 280g is? It’s about 10 oz. Actually a little under that. That’s 2 oz. less than the contents of an average soda can. You could fit 280 grams in a can of soup and have room to spare. And yet just having that amount on you, and having intent to distribute (which can actually be “determined” by the amount the suspect has on them or the presence of drug paraphernalia or packaging material) you’re automatically going to get 10 or 20 years minimum in a federal prison. Also if you happen to be dealing any Schedule I or Schedule II drug, so let’s say a Schedule II drug like Oxycodone, Adderall, or Ritalin, regardless of how much you have on you, if physical harm came to someone who used your drugs, and it’s your first offense, you get a minimum of 20 years in federal prison. Damn. Right? There are murderers that get out in 10-20 years. There are sex offenders who get out in 3-5! And yet we have people going away for ten years the first time they’re caught with 280g of crack.

And that’s just one facet of the sentencing system. There are endless stories and nuances to how people got in jail and how people got in there for however long they’re in their for. We brand these people as “criminals” and take away their dignity and feel like we don’t have to respect them as human beings anymore because they’re “the bad guys.” But we don’t know jack shit. You’ve probably done illegal things. I know I have. Not sure if they were misdemeanors or felonies but either way it doesn’t make me a bad person. Technically, though, I’m a “criminal,” I just didn’t get caught, or I have enough privilege that I can get away with some things. So I’m here writing articles like these and working, which is something that parolees and anyone who gets out of prison is going to have a hard time doing because not a lot of places hire felons. And I almost put a disclaimer down, to separate me from the “real criminals,” but that’s exactly the point. We shouldn’t be separating ourselves from those in prison or those on parole or those who have been to prison. Not automatically. Not as one monolithic group. And definitely not in ways that take away their humanity.

I promised I would give an answer at the end; a better way to do things than “compulsory respect.” Because Compulsory Respect (or Disrespect) didn’t occur out of nowhere for no reason. It solves problems for us. We generalize, sure, but it’s easier than breaking things down into the difficult little individual pieces that they are. We say “respect your elders” because not only do we genuinely not want our child to do something appallingly disrespectful to a teacher, or to grow up thinking they can do whatever, but because we genuinely want to see our kids turn out to be respectful people. We say “respect the military” because we don’t want to be another generation like the Vietnam protesters who conflated the atrocity that was the war with the individual soldiers, contributing to one of the factors that led to incredibly high suicide rates in Vietnam vets. We say “don’t go near him, he was in jail” because again generalizations help us, and we want to keep our children safe, and keep ourselves safe.

The problem, obviously, is that while generalizations like these do help us make sense of the world and be clear and concise, they also hurt people. They hurt people close to us, they hurt people we don’t know, and they hurt ourselves too. So once again, you’re probably thinking, “so get to the fucking point already.” The solution, in my mind, is maybe not to completely destroy these generalizations, though that might be ideal, but to stop letting them run our lives and the lives of those around us. Hell, most of this stuff we aren’t even aware of when we think or say or act on them. The first part of any change is always awareness of the problem. The second part is usually replacing it with something better. Maybe instead of calmly saying “respect your elders” when your son does the pbltltltltltlt raspberry thing with his tongue at his Grandma, you can say something like “Geraldiniaisima, that’s not appropriate right now,” or “Geraldiniaisima, that’s not a polite thing to do.” Both of those statements would be 100% correct. Then, maybe instead of leaving it at “respect your elders,” maybe take him aside later and teach him about respect, and acting respectful. You can tell him that not every adult, and not every person deserves his respect, and that is a decision for him to make, but that in society people expect that you act respectful, and unless you’re in danger, or you feel something isn’t right, it’s often best to act respectfully, even if you don’t respect the people around you.

People think that kids can’t understand nuance. Let me tell you Barney had a lot of fucking nuance. He’s a purple dinosaur, I had been told that dinosaurs were like green and grey and like maybe red if they were super violent. He’s also a dinosaur that fucking spoke English which would have meant he learned it from someone (in our time, mind you, because that’s how he spoke), despite dinosaurs and people never coexisting. Which brings you to the really big point of he’s a dinosaur and they died our however many millions of years ago, leading to the only natural conclusion: he’s was a genius dinosaur back in his time and he built a time machine to prove to his friends and family that he was right about the great asteroid coming that would cause a mass extinction. Sadly, as he gathered his evidence from our time, he was spotted by a small child who said in some foreign language the most beautiful words he had ever not understood: “Mommy, Mommy, Dinosaur!” followed by the far less beautiful words which he also could not understand “that’s great sweetheart, go play, mommy’s spying on Daddy to see why him and his secretary Bert are always going to lunch together and staying out late.” But it was then that Barney knew that life on earth would progress just as it had before, and his attempt to save his world was only a selfish grasp and stopping the undaunted force of evolution. So he decided to stay in that time. He hid his time machine and started a cult where he taught children about the values of love, respect, and friendship.

Sorry I got a little carried away. Anyways, that’s really my answer for all of this. Sometimes it’s necessary to carry out the old paradigms because of social rules. This may mean telling your kid at the very least to act respectfully in safe, social situations. Or it may mean just rolling your eyes and putting your hand over your heart for the National Anthem if you don’t think it’s a worthwhile form of protest, because you’ll know the words don’t mean anything to you and the gesture doesn’t mean anything to you. Really, battling Compulsory Respect is about breaking down those large generalizations into ideas that still help you make sense of the world, but don’t hurt others. Because yes, there are dangerous and evil people in prison, but no that doesn’t mean that everybody there is like that. And no, a military funeral is not the best place for you to show that you’re critical of the military and this country, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a good place for you to show that. It’s about not committing to such black and white thinking (god if you knew me you’d laugh your ass off at the fact that I’m advising people against black and white thinking). And in the end, it’s about allowing people to defer to their own instincts and judgement, just as you defer to yours. #Barney13thDoctor



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