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When Asked for Respect, Give It


I recently had an encounter online in which a friend requested that people avoid using misogynistic slurs on her page. This didn’t seem unreasonable, but one person saw fit to argue it.

The argument revolved around what kind of popular culture my friend consumed. “How can you say you don’t want to be exposed to slurs when [x], which you like, has slurs?”

This is one of those arguments that appears superficially logical, except it ignores the entire purpose of the original request.

Why would it be so difficult to simply accept the request and comply with it, rather than argue tangential issues?

This seems to be a common impulse (especially) among straight white men. It’s one I used to have myself, until I became more aware of it and worked to avoid it. That process wasn’t particularly difficult, and I don’t think it is hard to accomplish for oneself is one is willing to step back and investigate the purpose of such arguments.

If a friend has made a request, in good faith, to be accorded some type of respect, what’s the harm in granting it? Especially when it’s something as obvious as “please don’t use slurs around me.” There is no harm in complying, obviously, but the urge to object on some philosophical level can be strong. There is the old standby of “free speech,” as in “why can’t I say whatever I want?” which is clearly not the issue. One certainly can say anything they want. The question is whether you should, and having the right to say something doesn’t mean you are free from the consequences of it.

Another tactic often employed is the demand for “rational” or “logical” argument. Again, this misses the point. A request for courtesy or respect needs no underlying logic, unless one is simply unfamiliar with the concept of social interaction and human decency. Human interactions can be quite complex, but obliging simple instructions are not. Again: overcome the urge to argue. I’ve noticed that (usually straight, usually white) men fall back on the “rational” crutch a lot, happily resorting to reductio ad absurdum and slippery slope tactics. “If I can’t say x, soon you won’t let me say anything at all!” This leads into another common tactic: confusion of requests with censorship. Being asked to do something is by no means censorship, and certainly isn’t when the person making the request has no power (legal or otherwise) to enforce it at a broad level. You may be banned from the requester’s social media profiles, but that’s an eminently reasonable reaction to people who won’t accede to requests for basic respect. To put it another way: you aren’t entitled to someone else’s attention.

There are, on the other hand, times and places for such discussions and arguments. If someone asks for feedback on a particular approach, that is clearly the time to offer it. If engaged in a philosophical discussion of what is respectful and what isn’t, logically deconstructing the elements of respectful (and disrespectful) behavior makes perfect sense. As with so many other things in life, context is key. Save the arguments for the appropriate time and venue. If someone has asked for a relatively simple standard of conduct, it’s not difficult to do your part to adhere to it. This may even result in people being more willing to discuss it in the future, as it is a sign of good faith to behave in the manner asked.

In short, when encountering a request that revolves in some way around respecting another person, ask yourself a few questions:

  1. Is complying with this request a significant inconvenience or difficulty? If not, why not just do it?
  2. Is there any real gain to be had in arguing about it? Does it benefit anyone, or merely generate conflict for conflict's sake?
  3. Is it really worth it to you to be disrespectful to the person making the request in order to make your point?

On many occasions, it may not be possible to understand why someone is asking for something. They may request that you avoid (or use) certain words or terminology, avoid (or stick to) particular topics, and so forth. It is not necessary that you understand. Due to vast differences in human experience, understanding may not be feasible, in which case your only recourse is to rely on the trust you have in the person making the request. Assuming this person is a friend or family member, attacking them or demanding they prove their case to you is hardly conducive to an atmosphere of trust and respect. If you believe they are lying, that’s another matter entirely–certainly outside the scope of what’s described here. But if their honesty is at issue, it is still possible to address that respectfully–or, if you find it a significant enough concern, it may be best not to address at all, and cut ties. There may be nothing at all to gain in a confrontation, and this can be a hard lesson to learn when there is more concern with expressing your own rightness than navigating a tricky situation effectively.

Interactions with strangers, online and off, could potentially benefit from keeping these things in mind, but assuming good faith in such situations is much more difficult, and getting people to adhere to a standard of conduct when they have no real interpersonal investment is troublesome, to say the least. The best you can do in such a situation is set a good example and hope others will follow. During my long history of online interactions, I have been an example, for better or worse, and seen both the positive and negative consequences of my behavior. Nudging people to behave better works in the long run; nastiness only begets nastiness.

Photo by haynie.thomas36