The Rev. Kathleen Damewood Korb
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater
IS STUPENDOUS BETTER THAN MARVELOUS?
In the list of principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association, the association of which this church is a member, the first one is a covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. It’s one of the things that make some of us grateful that we are a voluntary association, and we are not required to adhere to every word of the list of principles — that it is not, in fact a creed for this creedless association of ours. After all, if you have any kind of realistic view of the world you know that there are some people who are really perfectly awful. Not many, but there are a few. No matter how hard you try, you can’t find anything worthwhile about them. I mean, they have no integrity, no morality, no sense of values, no intelligence, no charm, and they’re not even particularly good-looking. Admit it — they’re scuzzbags. What do you mean “the inherent worth and dignity of every person?”
An idea that for a long time has seemed to me more important than almost any other in human relationships is that of respect. Some years ago when Kurt Vonnegut gave the Ware Lecture at General Assembly, his theme, with which I agreed totally, was that in any relationship respect is far more important than love. We are told that we are called to love our fellow human beings, to care for their wellbeing, and to work for the good, not only of our own loved ones, but for all the human race. We might, actually, be able to do that if we tried, as long as we realized that didn’t mean we would have to like them. Far more difficult is the call to respect them, the call that is given to us when we speak of affirming and promoting the inherent worth and dignity of every person. It really sounds good as a general principle, and we’d very much like to do it until we come across those one or two that we just can’t seem to respect at all.
Nevertheless, we are called to offer respect, and it is, in fact, it seems to me, a basic human right, as basic and important as life and liberty, and far more important than the pursuit of happiness. In spite of this, and in spite of our ready understanding of the term, particularly obvious to us when we do not receive the respect that we feel is our due, it is not an easy concept to think through and decide either what is owed to us or what is required of us in regard to that right.
When any kind of civil rights activity is the center of our political action, although we may focus on such things as jobs, education, and inclusion, and most recently marriage equality, the underlying, motivating force is the need for respect. What enables us to mistreat fellow human beings is our ability to make them something other than full human beings who, as human, deserve the right of the respect of others. Winning civil suits, having laws passed that make discrimination illegal, getting affirmative action programs put in place, are only palliatives. Somehow, even the most activist realize that if real respect were tendered, none of these things would be necessary.
Some years ago, shortly before I came to
There is a comparatively new motivation for violent crime that at least brings these underlying injustices to our awareness. It is the response to being “dissed.” I tried to discover the origin of that term — it means, for those of you who have been completely cut off from the human race for the past few years, having been shown disrespect. I was told that it comes from a rap song that was very popular some time ago, “Dis Your Sis.” I am happy to say that I never heard it myself. At any rate, it seems that if someone feels that he or she — but usually he — has been treated with disrespect, the appropriate response is to maim or kill the disser. At least that is the reason given for such crimes. One young man I knew about considered himself dissed by another’s stepping in his shadow and shot him. Why someone should consider his shadow his personal turf I cannot imagine, but it shows to what lengths the need and demand for respect can go.
When it goes that far though, it is probable that it is their extreme lack of self-respect — excuse me, I believe one is supposed to say self-esteem — that causes this extraordinary thinness of skin. If your ego is pretty healthy and you are not treated with the respect that you feel is properly belonging to you, you can shrug it off with the realization that it is really the other person’s problem. It is only when your ego is anemic that it needs to be protected with such rigor. Protected and also fed in whatever ways that you can discover. Sometimes those ways may seem pretty self- and other-destructive, as when the only way one seems able to get recognition as an individual is to get in trouble. In certain circles it is actually a cachet to spend time in jail. It gets you a kind of respect — obviously more important than life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness.
In an effort to stem the tide of self-destruction, and realizing the vital importance of self-respect in that attempt, programs of various kinds have been instituted here and there to enhance self-esteem, to give young people hope and direction, and a sense that they can succeed if they try. In fact, it is a good and necessary idea, although some of the efforts have been worse than useless. There seems to be an idea that all you have to do is tell children that they’re wonderful and they can do anything, and they’ll believe it. I am not usually a fan of the comic strip Mallard Fillmore. The cartoonist’s definition of liberal is as distorted as that of Thomas Sowell. Once in a while, however, he strikes a responsive chord as when he did a series about the graduates of the school of self-esteem in which any kind of incompetency was acceptable as long as you felt good about yourself. Another cartoon to which I seldom look forward is Family Circus, but it too said something useful on this issue. Billy came running in waving a paper saying, “Look! I got a ‘Great’ on this paper. “Well, that’s wonderful,” his mother said. “Yes,” he responded, “But it’s not as good as ‘Fantastic’ or ‘Marvelous.’” What do you suppose they get if they really mess up? “Okay?” or is that not positive enough? Kids know a C when they see it, no matter what you call it. And they know a zero. Recently a furor was caused by a policy mooted by the school administration to give a 50% grade to homework that wasn’t even done, or so I understand. Better, it seems to me, not to let it count as part of one’s grade at all, if the intent is to keep determined non-homework doers from failing. To give any numerical value to absolutely nothing is beyond my comprehension.
Programs to enhance self-esteem, either at home from loving parents or at school, are not helpful if they call something success when it is not. It is, in fact, disrespectful to accept the unacceptable, and, since kids can readily tell the difference, it will lower rather than raise their self-esteem. Children gain self-respect and respect for others by being given it honestly, and that includes enough interest in them to help them really succeed. I’m not a fan of grades anyway, although competition is a powerful motivator for those who start out fairly evenly. What we need to do, I believe, is let children see our interest and concern and our belief that they can ultimately succeed, however well or poorly they are doing at a particular task at this particular moment. To compliment failure is almost worse than jeering at it, because it shows you don’t really care about or believe in the person’s success. It shows disrespect.
Respect is an absolute right belonging to a human being, but it is not necessarily equal. There are other particular reasons for people to be given respect as well their humanity as a matter of right. There is respect — or should be — for age, for example. One of the things that make me rigid with fury is the tendency for hospital and nursing home attendants to treat their aged patients like children — patients who have lost none of their mental acuity, and are unquestionably adult. The very factor that should increase the amount of respect that they are shown decreases it. There is also respect for a person’s position in life. This would be respect not for the individuals themselves, but for the office they hold. Even in a democracy, I think that’s appropriate. I find, for example, that although I don’t especially like it, I don’t feel insulted by being called by my first name by telephone or door-to-door salespeople. When, however, a stranger calls me at church and ascertains that I am the minister and then first-names me, I do feel that they have been rude. When people ask me, as they occasionally do, what they should call me, my response is that they should just call me by my name, though I will admit that the church school children’s calling me Reverend Katy, I find charming, but for a stranger to call, not me, but the minister of this church by her first name, I find disrespectful.
Respect can also be gained or lost, and that which is accorded to people by right rather than that which they have gained by their own superior merit is most easily lost. If you have earned the respect of others it is yours, but if it is simply accorded to you because of your position or your humanity, you must fulfill the minimum requirements of the office to retain it.
In this era of creeping creedalism in our association, I have been known to dis the principles, to say that they are not only not defining for us, they say little about our unique purpose as a religious faith. In spite of that conviction, I also admit that they are certainly ideals that any of us can and will agree with — even the first one, even when we know that we cannot accord respect to people like Hitler, like Charles Manson, like others that each of us can list. We covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. That is we accord them the respect that is theirs by right, and we not only affirm that right but I believe are obligated to promote it by respecting people’s humanity and doing our best to enable them to respect themselves — to have that self-esteem that can make them healthy, worthwhile individuals. At the same time, I don’t believe we are in any sense required to respect those few people who have lost their claim to it through their own actions or behavior. Our assumption must be that everyone is worthy of respect, and we are called not only to show that respect but to work to enable people to retain it. We are not, however, required to continue to respect people who have shown that they are not worthy of it.