You’ll know Aretha Franklin, the legendary singer and her famous song "R.E.S.P.E.C.T". In it she sings about what must be the most fundamental principle on which all life in human society is based – respect. The song is now over fifty years old but its lyrics are more topical than ever.

There can be no peaceful coexistence, and certainly no constructive cooperation, without mutual respect.  And this holds true not merely for human society.

Respect is not a one-way street

There was a time when respect wasn’t a matter of mutual consideration between equals as is the case today or at least should be. It was the time of figures of respect, our “elders and betters”. The authoritarian structures of the German Empire, for instance, expected subjects to show respect for representatives of the state without the state itself being in any way obliged to show respect for them. Respect was a matter of hierarchy that went in one direction only, from bottom to top. Nobody would dare contradict figures of respect whose orders were to be followed. Failure to obey resulted in trouble or something much worse.  This understanding of what respect is was prevalent in Germany until well into the 20th century and in our times can still be found in authoritarian and totalitarian societies.

An enlightened democratic society that builds on fundamental rights and human rights and protects them has a completely different notion of what respect is.


Respect is the foundation of civilisation

This is a notion of interpersonal respect that is independent of all forms of hierarchy. Relations between adults and children should be founded on mutual respect just as relations between different genders should be and also, with particular force, relations with people of different cultural backgrounds and skin colours. This modern understanding of respect is the vital precondition on which diversity is founded – diversity of opinions and lifestyles, diversity of cultures and political standpoints.

Discussions and sometimes disputes are necessary to promote further development. All this is constructive as long as waging parties show fundamental respect for one another. People listen to one another, contradict one another, reflect on the other side’s arguments and even if they cannot or will not share them, this changes nothing in their basic respect for one another.

Just like a house with a shaky foundation is liable to collapse if there’s an earthquake or a hurricane blowing, the stability of civilised life is endangered in turbulent times and crises when there’s a lack of mutual respect.


Respect has no expiry date

Respect has nothing to do spontaneous feelings or even sympathy but is based on a fundamental immutable stance

You’ll remember the people standing on balconies and at open windows earlier this year applauding the work done by doctors and nurses? And the banners unfurled from motorway bridges honouring the work of truck drivers – not usually the most popular figures in the public eye – in continuing to deliver essential foods to supermarkets and shopping centres? They were moments of collective shock, triggered by the alarming pictures of overcrowded corona intensive care units and empty supermarket shelves that brought the existential importance of the work these people do more to the forefront of public consciousness than ever before. The applause was an expression of a spontaneous feeling of gratitude. Showing it was the good and correct thing to do. Only now the applause has fallen silent. The outpouring of emotion is over and what remains is the need to maintain respect.


Respect doesn’t stop with our species

What some people might find difficult to show in interpersonal relations is subject to nothing less than a form of collective ignorance when it comes to the co-existence of the human race and nature. Because when it comes to respect this is something that obviously should be accorded not merely to our own fellow beings but to everything that lives in the natural world. Does this strike too strong a note of pathos for you?

For me it’s by no means pathetic and you don’t even have to be religious to hold such a point of view. It’s simply the expression of a clear scientific view of the real relations of dependency which govern the world in which we humans live on this earth. When we make ourselves the measure of all things and subjugate everything else to our own interests, this view gets lost and with it every form of respect for nature. We are now living in the Anthropocene age in which humankind dominates the earth, rampantly and recklessly exploiting its resources and destroying it at our whim. Without the slightest sign of respect. In such circumstances, respect becomes not merely a question of basic attitudes but also a question of intelligence. Because if we don’t respect the resources on which we depend, at the end of the day we’re simply destroying the very basis of our continued existence.

More Dagmar Woyde-Koehler