Earning Respect

I didn’t watch this year’s ESPYs where a number of overpaid and self-involved athletes are placed in the spotlight to receive even more attention and applause. I did, however, get a glimpse at the highlights.  Some of the awards make sense and are well deserved, but in general it’s just one more chance for these athletes to be seen on television. One of the awards this year, the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage, went to Caitlyn Jenner, formerly Bruce Jenner, Olympic decathlete who won a gold medal in 1976 and at the time was reputedly the greatest male athlete on the planet. He (She) has changed mightily. You wouldn’t recognize him (her). During her tearful speech, looking for all the world like something dragged backwards through a bush, she thanked her children for their support during her ordeal; she wanted our respect.

I have no problem whatever with Ms Jenner’s sex change. I applaud it. Perhaps it did show courage, though I would look for someone who fought off a seemingly fatal disease if I were making the choice, or perhaps Ray Rice’s wife. What Caitlyn did was something she says she simply “had to do.”  But the problem I really had was when she looked at the camera, mascara running down her face, and insisted that anyone who makes the choice she made should be shown “respect.” At that moment, the little devil on my left shoulder told me, she looked and sounded like someone who absolutely did NOT deserve respect. But that was him speaking, I won’t quarrel. Well, maybe a bit. I want to tighten up the word “respect.” I think she was using it rather loosely.

The word “respect” has reference to rights which have a colorful history. The Greeks never talked about rights, perhaps because they thought themselves superior to all other peoples on earth. Perhaps they were. But the medieval theologians, such as St. Thomas Aquinas, spoke of rights as “God-given” to all humans at conception. This, of course, is the root of the ongoing fight about abortion. But the notion was picked up in the age of Enlightenment by such thinkers as John Locke who dropped the theological overtones and referred to what he called “natural rights,” which were attributed to all persons at birth simply because they are human. Persons don’t earn them and, as Thomas Jefferson was to note, they are “unalienable.” They cannot be taken away. These rights must be respected by each of us or we have no grounds whatever for claiming rights for ourselves. And the notion that certain groups have rights that apparently do not pertain to others, such as women, blacks, or native Americans, is nonsensical on Locke’s view. All humans have rights simply by virtue of being human. Some thinkers have maintained that we could forfeit our natural rights through heinous crimes, such as murder, but in general they are “unalienable.”

But then there are also civil rights, which we have when we become citizens and which we can have taken away by the government, presumably in consequence of a criminal act whereby we are locked up and lose the right to vote or lose our driving license after repeated DUIs. During the years when hell was breaking loose in Stalin’s Soviet Union and Hitler’s Germany, no one had any rights, civil or natural — not even those in power. Anyone at any time could be sent to concentration camps where they were simply annihilated, erased from memory. Anyone who claimed to remember those who were sent away found themselves in the same boat. Welcome to totalitarianism in spades!

In the end, respect, which those with natural rights are deserving of, is a given. We must respect the natural rights of all persons: that’s a moral imperative, the cornerstone of Kant’s ethics. But there is also the respect we earn through our efforts and abilities and which can turn to contempt if we make little effort or squander those abilities and become somehow unworthy of respect. This sort of respect might be attributed to the teacher in the classroom because of her position, let us say. It can be turned to contempt when she shows herself ignorant of the subject or unable to communicate with her pupils. This is the respect we must earn. The question is does Caitlyn Jenner deserve this sort of respect?

The angel on my right shoulder says “yes,” because she had the nerve to go public and share with others her ordeal — and an ordeal it must have been from the look of her. The devil on my other shoulder (yes, he’s still there) tells me she doesn’t deserve our respect because she is making a fool of herself, and in drawing attention to herself — including, so I have read, wearing revealing apparel in public, apparently designed to show that, yes, she does have breasts  — she is simply on an ago trip.  Such people are not deserving of our respect because they have done nothing to earn it. I’m of two minds on this one, but I tend toward the devil’s view.

And as for receiving the Arthur Ashe Award for courage, that galls me a bit, because there was a man of true courage who did whatever he could to promote the rights of his people, who attacked apartheid in South Africa, who was an exemplary human being, and in the end fought with the aids that had been injected into his bloodstream by mistake with dignity and class. Now, there was real courage. Let’s not be taken in by the imitations.

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