Okay, deep breaths… 😉
One of my most hated, most, most, most intensely hated, least liked dictates of human society is the exhortation to ‘respect your elders’.
Firstly, let me get this out of the way: I have ABSOLUTELY NOTHING against respecting one’s elders. What I do have something against, is NOT respecting ALL humans. Dividing people into arbitrary categories, with some worthy of respect, some worthy of less respect, and (often) some not worthy of any respect. Someone happens to be born earlier than you were. How, in any person’s version of logic, could that automatically make them more worthy of respect than you are? Someone happens to be a man. How, in any person’s logic, does THAT make them more worthy of respect? But yet, not so very long ago, they were!!! Those were traditional values! Respect, defer to, and obey men! Some more traditional values: Respect and defer to white people. Yep, that’s a ‘traditional value’. Now I have NOTHING against either elders, or men, or white people (I am one myself), but I am totally opposed to ranking people in terms of worthiness. That – is discrimination, pure and simple. ‘Respect one’s elders’ – is discrimination. Nothing more and nothing less.
Okay – to look at some of the arguments people sometimes give in defense of respecting elders. A common argument is that they have the benefit of experience, they are ‘older and wiser’. Fair enough, they might now be wiser than they were 20 or 30 or 80 years ago, but that does NOT automatically mean that they are necessarily wiser that Johnny the 10 year old who lives down the road. Johnny could have been born with a cup full to the brim of wisdom already, or Johnny, in his few years, might have experienced way more than he should have for his years and be wise way beyond his years. The ‘older and wiser’ individual in question could have lived their life in comfort and ease, and learnt very little. They might indeed have gone the opposite way of wisdom and learnt how to be brim full of vanity, materialism and superficiality. Older and wiser? Sometimes yes, but not automatically.
You might argue that the elderly deserve our respect and deference because they have ‘done their bit’ for society, they have cared for us, or for others, and now we should be caring for them. In an ideal world, yes, they would have. But this cannot be an automatic assumption. Some of them might have done the exact opposite. Some of them might have caused untold and horrendous harm to members of the younger generation. They could be a sadistic ex-teacher, or an abusive ex-priest. Not everyone has ‘done their bit’. And then you might find a teenager who spends all of her free time doing work for charity – doing her bit – who has done more of ‘her bit’ for society by the time she becomes an adult than many adults do in a lifetime.
So, if you are going to go on either the ‘wiser’ argument or the ‘doing your bit’ argument, you would have to include all humans in this as potentially worthy of your respect.
So here’s a radical idea. Why not respect (unless given reason not to) – ALL humans. Instead of dividing, singling out and creating crazy prejudices. Because if you single out a demographic group as being worthy of respect, it automatically implies that another demographic group, in comparison, is LESS worthy of respect. And if we as a society could have believed, so recently, that males, able bodied people, or certain racial groups were more worthy of respect, why should societies current ‘received wisdom’ of who is worthy of respect be any less fallacious?
Another problem with the whole respect your elders thing, is that 1) it enables abuse and 2) it gives mixed messages to children about appropriate behaviour and the legitimacy of abuse of power.
Any ‘automatic respect’ model brings with it automatic compliance. We are told as children to respect our teachers, and to always do as they (ask?) (nah, tell!) us. We are told to do the same for our parents, for our friend’s parents, and certainly until recently for any older person. Now, thankfully, the vast majority of teachers, parents, friend’s parents and indeed adults are not nasty / abusive or indeed the neighbourhood serial killer, and will give out ‘orders’ that are generally in the best interests of all concerned. But ‘the vast majority’ is not enough. Not when it comes to the personal safety and wellbeing of our kids. When our kids are taught and conditioned and expected to obey without question the authority and orders of adults, when they are taught to respect adults without question, to obey without question the adult in charge – the teacher or scout leader or uncle or priest or parent. Then – ‘the vast majority’ – is NOT good enough. ‘The vast majority’ is not good enough if kids are not taught, and given the tools and experience, to evaluate the reliability and trustworthiness of the adults around them. If they are not taught to evaluate ‘orders’ they are given. If they are not given the tools, the confidence, or even the PERMISSION to keep themselves safe. Then, indeed, ‘the vast majority’ is not good enough. This is one of the problems that a lot of people have with ABA, and other compliance based autism interventions – it habituates and conditions a person, indeed a particularly vulnerable person – to automatically comply with any orders no matter how distressing that compliance is for them. Compliance – is dangerous. Automatic, unquestioning respect – is dangerous.
On to my second point, about the mixed or harmful messages we could unwittingly be giving our kids if we teach automatic respect and compliance. There are always, always, always going to be the small percentage of people in positions of authority, the small percentage of rogue youth leaders, priests, parents, teachers, doctors, etc etc, who abuse their power. Who bully and abuse those in their control. It’s unfortunately a fact of our species – a small percentage of us are not nice. NO CHILD is going to be able to get from birth to adulthood without having to deal with at least one of these abusive individuals, in at least one setting. Well if they did, it would be statistically incredible. So they WILL SEE abuse of power, of some sort, somewhere along the line. Never mind the whole safeguarding issue for a moment. Try to imagine what this does to their understanding of how the world works. They see that abuse is allowed. They see that it is easy for those in authority to get away with abuse. They see that they are not allowed to disobey their elders, even if obeying is harmful for them. They see that they are encouraged to NOT protect themselves from abuse. They might imagine that they are not important enough to us to be given the skills AND THE PERMISSION to protect themselves from abuse. Because automatic respect and compliance – and a questioning mind and self-protection – are not compatible.
So, some people might argue, automatic respect of our elders, and compliance, is what keeps society and its institutions running smoothly. Keeps them from descending into chaos. For example our schools. Well, you might counter, simply because something is an inconvenient truth does not make it a non-truth. The fact that teaching kids to comply selectively might upend how our schools are run AT THE MOMENT – perhaps that simply means that schools, as they are run at the moment, are unfit for purpose. New models need to be created. (As they are starting to be.)
For me, what I have always tried to teach my daughter is a basic ‘benefit of the doubt’ respect to all creatures (human and other species), with the option of withdrawing that respect if the other person abuses it. And I have taught her that respect should ideally always be a two way thing – there is no way I would ever expect her to respect someone who does not respect her. What more could we really ask from our kids, in all honesty?