In contemporary politics, respect is anti-democratic

We do not defer to our rulers. They must earn our respect.

Rajeev Bhargava
19 June 2019, 1.28am
Narendra Modi with Vladimir Putin in Moscow, July 8, 2015.
President of Russia. Public Domain.

Respect for politicians is in short supply in our times. Most citizens of contemporary democracies seem to tolerate, not respect the rulers they elect. Are we troubled by the absence of respect in politics? Should politicians even be accorded respect? If yes, what form of respect must they get?

Directive respect: egalitarian.

The core idea of respect is a serious attitude, state of mind, or bodily stance flowing from a strongly positive appraisal of its object as being worthy. The object’s worth grounds respect. This is so not only in English but also in other languages such as Hindi (sanmaan) and Chinese (jing). In each language this concept also has multiple elaborations, of which three are relevant here.

One sense that might be called ‘directive-respect’ was elaborated by the late 18th century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant. Respect, for him, had the force of an authoritative moral instruction, a directive. Why? Kant understood that, in their social interactions, humans can never entirely eliminate using one another for personal benefit.

When I enter a bus, for example, I approach the conductor, not out of love, affection or curiosity but with one goal in mind - to purchase a ticket to travel. And the conductor is in the bus to do one job for the bus-owner: to sell tickets. All of us - the passengers, conductor, driver and bus owner- relate to each other as instruments to achieve their respective ends: to travel, earn a livelihood or make a profit.

However, Kant also argued, while this may well be so, that each must also keep in mind that they are moral agents with distinct purposes, their own subjective take on the world, and the capacity to endow the world with meaning, purpose and value. In short, unlike objects in the world which derive value from us, we humans are originators of value. We have intrinsic worth.

This capacity to endow things with value is what Kant called dignity. It is this very quality - our inherent dignity - that imposes limits on the extent to which we can use each other for personal benefit. I can’t treat the bus conductor as a mere thing to be pushed around, offended or humiliated, even as I buy a ticket from him. Because he has dignity, I must respect him.

To reiterate, the quality of dignity that inheres in a person is the ground for a moral directive not to treat anyone only as an instrument to realize my purpose, but always also as a person with distinct purposes of her own. Put differently, to respect others is not just to have a feeling or an attitude, but also to act towards them in a way that does not merely use them. This is what makes it a form of directive-respect. In addition to being directive, Kant’s notion is also egalitarian. This is so because each of us commands this respect regardless of our social status or position, class, gender, race, talent or achievement.

Directive respect: hierarchical.

A second form of respect occurs where the quality that commands respect from others inheres not in the person but in the social position he occupies or the role he performs. Thus, children must respect their father; wives, their husbands; family members, their ancestors; servants, their masters; people lower in social rank or caste, those who are high caste; and subjects, their rulers. This unequal status is the original site of the idea of respect, its initial breeding ground. The notion of respect was for long intertwined with ideas of superiority and inferiority and had deep hierarchical overtones. Virtually indistinguishable from awe, reverence, fear and deference, it was expressed not only in words but also through silence and bodily stances.

Thus, a person believed to be inferior could not call a superior by his name; he or she could not look him in the eye; always had his or her head bowed or entirely covered; was not to touch any part of the superior person or at best appear to touch only his feet; must always obey and never question or even respond, and do as he is told.

This hierarchical notion of directive-respect has not disappeared from society (as many had hoped) and continues to permeate social relationships. But disturbingly, just when we thought that it was fading away from Indian politics because of our anti-colonial struggle and equality-centered reform movements led by Mahatma Gandhi and the leader of the former untouchables, B.R. Ambedkar, it appears to be raising its ugly head again. Revived here is the older, deeply hierarchical idea of respect as deference laced with fear which brooks no dissent, muffles all voices, and demands unquestioning silence from all.

It is also being used to elicit obedience to a ‘supreme leader.’ I heard a complaint by a ‘devotee’ of the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, that it upset him that his leader was treated by the press not with respect but as if he was an ordinary politician – implying that his leader can’t be subjected to any normal questioning. Another follower thought that Modi deserved respect merely because he was the country’s prime minister. The office endowed him with superior worth which commanded deference and obedience.

On other occasions, the leader commanded respect because he had become the embodiment of the national popular will. He had become the nation. Therefore, not treating him with due awe and reverence was disrespecting the nation. This appears to be happening not only in India but in many other polities of the world. I am told that many a conversation between Trump loyalists and his critics, for example, is brought to an abrupt, screeching halt by the complaint that such critics don’t respect the president.

Likewise, Viktor Orban says that any attack on his xenophobic policies is a sign of disrespect for Hungary. The Turkish writer, Ece Temelkuran drew attention to similar demands by President Erdogan. When charged with rigging the polls, he claimed that this shows disrespect to the real people of Turkey and their choice. Temelkuran also quotes Fiona Hill who claims that ‘respect is what Putin really wants…and he wants it in the old fashioned hard-power sense of the word.’ The term ‘old fashioned’ reiterates precisely the hierarchical idea that a person commands respect merely by virtue of the power that flows from his political position.

The hierarchical notion of respect is a one-way street, and is deeply incompatible with the very idea of democracy. The egalitarian notion of respect articulated by Kant is a prefect riposte to respect as deference, but it is too general to be of use in the specific context of citizen-ruler relationships. Does this mean then that respect for politicians is entirely dispensable in democracies?

Evaluative respect.

I don’t think so. Another kind of respect exists, one this is owed to people not because of what they are or their social position but by virtue of what they have achieved by their efforts. This may manifest in some praiseworthy qualities of character such as moral integrity or by perfecting some skills as a musician, cricketer or scholar. This respect consists in an attitude of positive appraisal of the person’s moral qualities or non-moral skills. Here respect is not presumed but earned.

We can appropriately say that this attitude of respect is deserved when a person meets some standards of excellence integral to that practice. Precisely because it is something one achieves, it can also be a matter of degree. Rightly or wrongly, one can say, for example, that one has greater respect as a tennis player for Roger Federer than Andy Murray, or Nehru rather than Indira Gandhi as politicians.

It is this notion of ‘evaluative’ or ‘appraisal-respect’ that is highly relevant in democratic politics. Politicians occupy a contingent political position where they have a job to perform - to work for the common good, to ensure that everyone is treated as an equal, to prevent negative discrimination at the hands of the government, and to ensure that everyone gets what they need and that there is peace, harmony and justice in society. In addition they must work truthfully, sincerely and transparently. When politicians achieve these goals and behave in accordance with the highest standards of political morality, they earn our respect. When they fail to so, we begin to disrespect them.

There is no question of hierarchical respect or deference to our rulers in modern, democratic polities. It is our right to question, challenge and criticize our politicians. All power wielders, including presidents and prime ministers, must submit to these demands. All of us, the rulers and the ruled, are bound by norms of egalitarian respect more generally, and in particular by evaluative respect specific to democratic politics. To our politicians, we can only say: if you want our respect, then earn it.

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