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On Disrespect

An attempt to reinvent classic theories of social interaction as expressions of power

One of my long-standing social weaknesses has been a deep intuitive understanding of respect. I simply didn’t understand it at all, even if I counterfeited it well enough to get along. Respect made no sense, it was arbitrary. Jokes about ‘being dissed’ were funny to me precisely because I had no idea what this arbitrary thing was; clearly it wasn’t just basic courtesy, but beyond that I didn’t follow. Novels like the 3 Three Musketeers novels were enjoyable enough, but I didn’t follow what these things about honor and respect were that D’Artagnan and company would go on about, and would kill or die for.

But people always have some reason for doing something (even if the something might as well be random). So I was well aware that I was missing something, and that this something is very important given how often ‘respect’ is invoked in global culture.

Kinds of Respect

But I think I’ve finally grasped what respect is about. I now see 2 different kinds of respect:

  1. True respect

  2. Social respect

True Respect

True respect is the pure form. It’s what one feels for a great scientist like Isaac Newton or Charles Darwin: we consider their achievements to have been enormously profitable, of high utility, and we acknowledge that they were extremely difficult achievements.

This respect is moral, it combines personal like with personal approval: I think Darwin was a great guy and wish more people would emulate him in making great discoveries. This approval isn’t unconditional, though: I tremendously respect Isaac Newton, but I don’t think people should waste time as Newton did pursuing pseudosciences like alchemy. (You can’t even defend his work as at least showing alchemy a dead end because he didn’t publish any of it.)

To be given this respect feels great. It is emotionally rewarding to find someone who both likes you and values your accomplishments. True respect is akin to love1. We value it very much.

I have no issues with this kind of respect. It’s perfectly understandable. If one speaks of how they respect Neil Armstrong or Leif Ericson, I know exactly what they mean, and I can evaluate this kind of respect on rational grounds. The person did such and such things, which led to such and such consequences, and so on; I can think about whether this respect is justified—perhaps morally good outcomes happened despite that person and so they deserve that much less credit, and so on.

This kind of respect is no harder (but no easier)2 to evaluate than evaluating historical events. It is, ultimately, rational.

Social Respect

But of course, we use ‘respect’ in contexts other than historical discussions or when talking about accomplishments (“I really respect Jimmy’s ability to long-jump 13 feet!”). We see it in all sorts of other areas—newspaper analyses of global events will often say things like “The Iranian public opposes a shutdown of domestic nuclear fuel production, as it finds the international opprobrium disrespectful”, or “The father found his daughter’s reply disrespectful.”

We could try to shoehorn these examples into the above framework, but it wouldn’t really work. Is the Iranian public really trying to say something about the UN’s inspection program and whether it should be emulated or not? Intuitively, no.

And not all disrespectful things are even people, events, or accomplishments. A simple red t-shirt in the wrong place in ghetto could be seen as extremely disrespectful, but there’s no real ‘action’ about a red t-shirt (maybe it’s not even being worn) and in another context like the suburbs it wouldn’t even attract a glance. A teenager sprawled across a couch could be disrespectful or nothing at all; it depends on whether a parent is berating him.

Why does social respect seem to always depend on context, while the other doesn’t always? After all, it doesn’t matter if Charles Darwin had written On the Origin of Species at the South Pole or in an urban ghetto or NYC’s Chinatown.

What’s the difference? What’s going on?


I eventually realized the difference when reading a book on body language. I was taking notes, and when I typed up the following, it suddenly hit me what social respect was all about:

“Teenagers, in particular, often will sit splayed out on a chair or bench, as a nonverbal way of dominating their environment while being chastised by their parents.
This splay behavior is disrespectful and shows indifference to those in authority.
It is a territorial display that should not be encouraged or tolerated.”3

Power. That’s what social respect is about. Power explains everything.

It explains why the stereotypical encounter between black youth about ‘dissing’ can escalate so easily into physical violence. It explains why gang members might kill someone visibly wearing rival gang colors even if they would let that someone pass unremarked wearing different normal, and even if they know that person has nothing to do with the rival gang. It explains why adults can ‘flip out’ at small gestures or other signs of disrespect. It explains why nations can put symbolism over substance.

Fundamentally, if I engage in ‘social respect’ with regard to you, then what that actually means is that I engage in some meaningless but annoying-to-me actions which satisfy your rules. Your rules may be utterly arbitrary—don’t wear red shirts, wear a tie, sit up in your chair, cover your yawns etc. But no matter what the rule, what message is sent when I follow them?

It sends the message that you have power over me.

“The master Bankei was preaching when challenged by a priest to show he commanded respect & obedience.
Bankei replied he would do so if he would come forward where he could be heard.
When he did, Bankei had him move to his left, then his right.
‘You see, you are obeying me, & I think you very gentle indeed. Now please listen.’”4

There’s a more general point here. Everyone is fearful of losing what power they have. Disrespect can be any attempt to set or change the balance of power. And disrespect alone can destroy someone’s power. Is it any wonder that disrespect can evoke such feelings of fear and hostility and anger?

A teacher or parent may go berserk over a small point of disrespect because deep down they know they have little power. Their ability to coerce is limited, and that which coercion can command is solely external behavior. If you are trying to teach a subject or inculcate a belief, there’s nothing whatsoever you can do to force a pupil. You cannot reach into their brain and slap the neurons around into the proper configuration.

Pupils have to be willing: bad grades are only as powerful as the pupil lets them be by caring about them. Against a juvenile delinquent, what can you do? Every bit of disrespect indicates that a pupil’s willingness has eroded that much more.

Worse, if a student is disrespectful and one cannot make them stop, the other students will observe your failure and draw this conclusion: your power is not as great as you thought (and they know that you will draw this conclusion as well). It would be expecting too much of human nature to expect them to not exploit this new knowledge. Just observing one student’s disrespect can make the other students more powerful!


Seen in this framework, disrespect is a deliberate action which makes the point that a person is not ‘playing their [the other’s] game’. One can’t be disrespectful acting normal: if I always splay out on a chair (perhaps I have cerebral palsy!), and the other person knows that, then my splay won’t be seen as disrespectful. But suppose I normally sit upright, and then while talking with someone I deliberately splay out. This splay of course in no wise physically affects that person or damages their goods. But what it does say is:

“I know that one of your customary rules is that someone talking to you stands or sits upright. If I were to sit upright normally, I would be granting you control over me—‘being respectful’ and ‘playing your game’. I am making a point of not being under your control, which by definition weakens your power and elevates mine.”

In this light, the splay becomes an aggressive action, a declaration of war.


This idea even explains ‘politeness’. Every society has a set of small customs and arbitrary choices. In aggregate, we call someone who invariably follows them ‘polite’.

Now, the first explanation one thinks of for politeness is that it’s some sort of optimization or efficient behavior. But this explanation doesn’t make sense in general. This explanation might work for conventions like ‘walking/driving on the right’—there would be major inefficiencies if everyone couldn’t agree on which side of the road to use.

But what about something like holding the door for someone? This may save the second person a little effort, but far more is wasted by the first person. It isn’t even socially efficient: it can be very awkward when you hold the door for someone too far away, or someone does that to you, or people might be offended by you not holding the door when they think they were close enough. Damned if you do… There’s nothing efficient about that! We would all be much better off never holding the door for each other.

Behaviors like this signal to the other person is, “I am willing to make you feel better about yourself, more powerful than you are, by engaging in these trivial actions which nevertheless come at a small cost to myself.”

Politeness is very dishonest in this sense: if you are polite, you perform the same politeness rituals for both the vagrant and the VIP. This is why people prefer a level of politeness between the disrespectful and the excessive; the former is obviously disliked, but the latter means you have no idea what the polite person considers to be the power balance between the two of you. They could be contemptuously sneering at you, or they could see you as an equal—but you have no idea which, because politeness has effaced all the signals you usually use to figure out the pecking order.

And people hate not knowing what the pecking order is.

See Also

  1. By ‘love’, I mean something like agape.↩︎

  2. Obviously one’s view of history will change one’s respect. If you see Franklin Delano Roosevelt as a hero for his New Deal, then obviously you will respect him more than someone who regards the New Deal as not ameliorating the Great Depression and representing just an expansion of state socialism.↩︎

  3. pg 101, What every body is saying: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Speed-Reading People; Joe Navarro, Dr. Marvin Karlins, ISBN 978-0-06-143289-5; 2008↩︎

  4. paraphrased from the story “Obedience”, in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones↩︎

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