The English language is rich in words that allow for nuance, subtlety, shades of meaning and ambiguity. One of these words is ‘Respect’.
In Australia it has been attached to the fight against domestic violence: the hotline for victims is 1800 737 732, or 1800 RESPECT (I suppose the T is redundant).
Children are supposed to respect their parents and teachers.
In traditional societies, old people are automatically respected irrespective of their personal qualities.
After centuries of humiliation China is demanding respect from other countries, while doing all in its power to be undeserving of it.
In the Britain that I grew up in it was a middle class aspiration to be respectable.
As a boy I was taught to raise my cap to a woman as a mark of respect, even if I had no knowledge of the woman’s character.
We are all enjoined to show respect for the dead; to respect other people’s opinions and beliefs, however much we may disagree with them; and to respect the sanctity of a holy place.
But we also use phrases like “with respect to” meaning “in relation to” or “having regard to.”
And a sentence that begins “With all due respect” always ends with criticism or an insult.
I had a quick look at my copy of Roget’s Thesaurus (Old Boys’ Public Speaking Prize, 1962) and found ‘Respect’ listed under the following headings: Deference, Fame, Salutation, Observe and Reference. ‘Respectable’ scored mentions under Repute, Upright and Tolerable.
According to the Bible (Acts 10.34) the apostle Peter said, “Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons.” This was explained to my RI class to mean that God pays no heed to a person’s status – confusing to a classroom of boys who were forced to show respect to teachers merely because they were teachers.
All this is meant to demonstrate that one should never assume an understanding of what someone means simply from the words they employ. I might even say that words are increasingly being used to distort and blur meaning.
I say, what a great segue to a reminder to start hunting your nomination for the 2022 Stroppy Git Award for Meaningless Drivel! Deadline: 10 January.
“Aboriginal women are at least 32 times more likely to be hospitalised because of an assault by their partner than non-indigenous women.
“They are at least three times as likely to have experienced violence in the past year than non-indigenous women.
“All this despite comprising a far smaller proportion of the population.”
The writer (Lauren Novak) is drawing attention to important statistics and goes on to suggest ameliorative measures. But she spoils it for me in that third paragraph. Having correctly compared rates of hospitalisation and exposure to violence, she then demonstrates a failure to understand what a rate is.
I don’t want to pick on Ms Novak, who is a much-awarded professional journalist whom I have never met. This is just one example of what I have now dubbed Numeric Incompetence Syndrome (NIS). It seems to afflict journalists and sub-editors disproportionately, but perhaps that’s because their condition is on public display more often than other sufferers’.
I’m thinking about an annual award for the most egregious manifestation of NIS: a Nissy to sit alongside the well-established and eagerly-awaited Stroppy**. What do you think?
Since writing this I have seen another howler in my local newspaper (one of Rupert Murdoch’s, by the way): a little matter of a displaced decimal point in a graphic summary of the South Australian State Budget, showing annual revenue and expenditure to be A$1.9 billion instead of A$19 billion. Now that’s the sort of thing a sub-editor should pick up, don’t you think?
** The Stroppy Git Award for Meaningless Twaddle, awarded every January, for which nominations are always open.
There are some kinds of misbehaviour that have always been unacceptable, but there is merit in the claim that the boundary between unacceptable and acceptable has shifted a long way in a short time. For example, when I was a lad:
Men were expected to be the active initiators of any romantic/sexual activity. Failure to live up to that expectation signalled either lack of interest or homosexual inclination.
A woman’s first “No” was generally taken to mean “Try harder.”
Stolen kisses were thought to be romantic.
A slapped face was the standard punishment for a man who went too far.
On the silver screen (chief source of moral guidance in those days) a woman’s initial resistance always gave way to eager melting into the aggressor’s arms.
Almost every American TV sitcom included the occasional episode where a wife was turned over her husband’s knee for a spanking – well-deserved and for her own good.
While not condoned, wife-beating (as domestic violence was called) was considered a fact of life that some women just had to live with. I’m not sure if it was technically a crime, but in the popular mind it wasn’t.
Against that backdrop it’s not surprising that many people – women as well as men – cannot take seriously the recent redefinition of ‘sexual harassment’ to include the accidental overhearing of off-colour jokes.
According to pollsters YouGov (as reported in The Week) there are big generational differences in how women perceive ‘sexual harassment’. When they polled women in the age groups 18-24 (A) and 55+ (B) they found:
64% in group A and 15% in group B think wolf-whistling is sexual harassment.
28% in group A and 11% in group B think commenting on a woman’s attractiveness is sexual harassment.
“But,” you may say, “what about a rich, powerful old man taking advantage of a powerless young woman who aspires to a career (such as politics or show business) to which she thinks the man can help her get access? Surely that’s sexual harassment pure and simple!”
I may be hopelessly old-fashioned, but when a woman allows a man to have his way with her in the hope of pecuniary advantage it looks more like prostitution than victimhood. But I’m willing to hear contrary opinions.