008When people use the word respect, what they are often actually referring to is power and not respect at all, in the true sense of the word.

Bear with me as I elaborate on this notion.

The distinction between the language of power and respect is something I became aware of a few years ago after a lecture given by a police officer in Vancouver named Mike Knox. Knox goes into more depth about this notion in his book “Gangsta in The House”, indicating the misuse of the word respect as a norm in gang-related culture. I now lead discussions around this topic with the groups of teens I work with. They typically have a ton to say about it and understand the distinction and the paradox in our use of language quite quickly.

I will take you through the same conversation I facilitate in my work.

What is the difference between Power and Respect? With the teens, I write the two words at the top of two separate columns and we brainstorm ideas related to each.

POWER                                         RESPECT

Dominance                                    Trust

over/under                                    Equality

can be used well or not                 Honesty

Often involves fear                         You like the other person

Intimidation                                    You want to listen

Can be official or not                      Can be powerful

What it always inevitably comes down to is that the distinction is pretty simple: Power can be used in helpful or harmful ways; power and respect are not mutually exclusive; with power, one can be respectful; people in a position of power over others tend to exert the use of domination, intimidation, and creation of fear to get what they want rather than communicating genuine and mutual respect; the impact of using power in a dominance kind of way is that people tend to abide and listen to you out of fear, not at all out of respect for you. The teens are pretty quick to realize that when we mistaken our power for respect, it’s easy to live an illusion that people like you, when in fact. it might be that they have no respect for you at all and are too afraid to say it because of how you might use your power to impose consequences.

So, then we look at some of the common language that gets thrown around in relationships where there is a real and explicit hierarchy (parent-child, teacher-student, employer-employee, police officer-civilian, bullier-bullied, etc.). We say things like “you better show me some respect”, “if you don’t respect me, I’m going to…”, “don’t you dare disrespect me”, “you owe me respect”, “people have to earn their respect”, “no one disrespects me”, and so on.

In those statements, are we really talking about respect or are we covering up the fact that what we are really talking about is power? It seems pretty obvious to me. That misuse of the word respect is at the foreground of some of the fucked up power struggles that inevitably lead to high stress, conflict, punishment, and ego-driven realities in our hierarchical systems.

I obviously encourage the teens to look at their own use of language rather than to simply think of examples of times when they have been on the receiving end of the exertion of power. The question is, how do you respond to someone who is trying to dominate you, expecting you to respect them in return…

I like coming back to the quote I have blogged about before “It is easier to fight for one’s principles than to live up to them”. As soon as we start to puff up our chests and fight for the “respect” we think we deserve, our ego is getting tangled up in the power game. The way to invite respect into our lives is by being respectful. It’s that simple.