“Respect Your Elders”

It is strange how two siblings brought up together can think so differently.

My sister has been a teacher for many years and is now an educationalist. (To be honest, I did not even know there was such a profession, until she told me so recently.) When my sister visited, we had a couple of discussions about the notion of “respect” – specifically, the very Indian notion of “respect your elders”.

In India, generally, “respect your elders” means, address people by formal titles (Sir, “ji” “uncle” etc), never use first names for elders, not even for older siblings (nor, heaven forbid, for husbands), listen quietly to what they say, don’t contradict and don’t “talk back”. Here, “talk back” includes trying to have a logical, sensible discussion, specially if that discussion involves an even slightly divergent point of view (and without that, where is the need for discussion?). In the old days – and perhaps for some people even nowadays – respect also meant keeping your eyes downcast, not daring to look a “respected” person in the eye.

My sister felt, based on her teaching experience, that kids nowadays don’t show respect for elders – that is, they don’t even address teachers as Ma’am far, less anything else. They use first names, they talk back, and they are rude.

My point to this, and to other aspects of respecting elders is, simply addressing people formally and politely is not respect. It might be courtesy and good manners, but it is not respect and it should not be taught as a form of respect. Politeness and courtesy are desirable values in themselves, but respect is something completely different.

Suppose you train kids to address parents, teachers and other elders politely, but in their minds the kids are thinking: “What do you know, you piece of shit?” Then what have you got – nothing more than hypocrisy, disrespect plastered over with good manners.

Of course, I’m not advocating teaching kids to speak their minds when they feel something like that. Quite the contrary. I’m saying, teaching kids to respect people – not just elders, but anyone, really – goes beyond lip-service and good manners. It means, teaching them to listen to and weigh what another person is saying, not just to nod agreement externally while they issue rude rejoinders in their minds.

It also means encouraging them to speak their minds – preferrably politely, but politeness is a different discussion altogether.

Which brings me to another point. Respect is a two-way street. If you listen to a younger person (sticking with the concept of “respect your elders” as opposed to simply respecting people) airing their views, and you are able to respond to their divergent points of view, intelligently and dispassionately – then, and only then, do you really win any respect.

If, iinstead, you say, “I’m old and wise and I know better, so shut up and listen to me,” and if the child or youngster actually does so in the name of “respect” then you have trained them not to be respectful, but instead to be zombies, brain-dead automaton, accepting “wisdom” as it is handed down without exercising any thought or evaluation of their own. How can this be respect?

I’m not saying elders don’t know better. They might – but then again, they might not. For me to respect someone, I need first and foremost to be convinced that they are right (in a discussion of some sort) or that they are really good at something. It could be someone who’s good at music, or writing, photography, tennis… Usually, it is something that I’d like to be good at – or even something that I think I’m good at, but that the other person is at least as good at or better. It is difficult for me to respect someone in a field that I have little interest in – say, ice hockey.

Even when I respect a person for some achievement or ability, I might respect only that ability – not the whole person. Take, for example, a former boss of mine. She wasn’t really a nice person, and in my opinion she was screwing up her own life and the lives of a lot of people around her (including mine), so I couldn’t respect her as a person because I thought she really needed to sort out her priorities. But I really respected her skills at some aspects of our work – I learnt a lot from her and I always felt she was really good at what she did.

Another example: when I had been married only a few months, I was at a gathering of Amit’s uncle and his friends, in Canada. His uncle is a university professor and of course many years our senior. This gathering was a sort of introduction of me, the new bride, to his close circle. In the course of discussion on some theoretical subject, his uncle said something and I – I don’t know why I did this – did not exactly contradict what he was saying, but said something somewhat divergent to it. At first his uncle said a flat no to what I was saying. Then – and this surprised and really pleased me – he thought about it a moment and said, yes, you’re right, actually. Given the social context – his friends and peers, me the newcomer, much younger, comparatively uneducated – for him to have given due consideration to my point of view and then to have conceded it was almost unthinkable, yet he did it so casually and I doubt he even noticed or remembered it.That – for me – is the essence of respect. He heard me, without thinking of my age and standing in the group, and he considered what I had said only for what it was worth, not for who it came from. I respect him tremendously for that. It is something I have met so very seldom, even in my immediate family, that I have mostly given up airing my thoughts except to very few people in whom I trust.

This is what I’d like my kids to learn about respect – politeness, courtesy and using the appropriate forms of address are all desirable and good, but these are not respect. Respect is not to be given by default or by habit; respect is due to every person, regardless of age or anything else, but respect must be earned, and it is not a one-way street.

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