Tuesday, April 12, 2005

All Due Respect

When enumerating virtues, "respectfulness" is not one that typically comes to mind, though I think it is a useful virtue for our times (and one in short supply). Respectfulness is both an inner attitude and an outer expression of that attitude. The inner attitude entails extending faith that others always may have something worthwhile to contribute, and that their contributions should be judged on their own merits, rather than prejudged based on a prior opinion of the person. This includes the belief that people in positions of respect should be given respect by default. (Not that they must be respected under any circumstances, but that they should be presumed worthy of respect until proven otherwise.) The outer expression of this attitude is manifested by civil and respectful forms of address, for example, calling officials by their proper title, such as President Bush or Senator Clinton (as opposed to merely "Bush" or "Hilary"). While some may object to this as a hollow formalism (or worse still, hypocrisy, if the "outer" respectfulness masks a lack of inner respect), I have come to believe that it is an essential part of the practice of the virtue of respectfulness. (Careful readers will notice that I have endeavored to follow this precept in my blogging.) In an intriguing blog about Leftists and Civility, Prof. William Vallicella makes these observations about the connection between the inner and the outer:
[Conservatives] see no reason to reject as phony or ‘precious’ something that is conducive to good living. They understand that since we live in a world of appearances, a certain amount of concern with them is reasonable. They also understand that by faking it a bit, one brings oneself actually to feel the emotions that one began by faking. For example, by saying ‘Good Morning’ when I don’t quite feel like it, I contribute to my own perception of the morning as good. Or if I say, ‘With all due respect’ to an opponent for whom I initially feel little respect, I make it more likely that I will see the merit of his arguments and come to respect him. Respectful behavior leads to feeling respect. The outer does not merely express the inner; it partially determines the inner.
I believe that he is correct in these observations, and in fact it is this connection between the inner and the outer that leads me to view respectfulness as a virtue. A common characteristic of virtues is that they are forged through practice. One's virtues are part of one's character, and character must be developed, by intentionally acting as one would wish to be, repeatedly, until through practice one comes to be so.

We should all be familiar with the experience that it is much easier to be horrendously offensive in email than it is to be so when face-to-face. When speaking to someone directly, we are more mindful that we are confronting a person. When writing an email, the inherent detachment in the mode of communication makes it all too easy to forget the usual brakes on disrespect. It's even easier to ride a runaway train of sarcastic invective if one is being disrespectful in forms of address. We can imagine that very different sorts of commentary would start off with "President Clinton ..." versus "Bubba ...". On the other hand, keeping to a habit of respectful address, especially when addressing someone you disagree with, will of itself slow down the runaway train, just because the same tone will more naturally follow a more respectful start. And as Prof. Vallicella said, if we give even the lip-service of all due respect, in time we may come to actually have due respect.

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