Here's my theory of respect.
Everyone deserves some level of basic respect, just for being a fellow human being. This kind of respect means that I won't step on your toes, I'll smile and nod when you talk, I'll hold the door for you. This kind of respect isn't worth much.
The important kind of respect is the one where I will listen carefully to things you say and give your words a lot of consideration and weight. When we disagree, I will sometimes give you the benefit of a doubt (where applicable) and believe your opinion over my own. I will consider you to be a good person. I will want to emulate you. I will make every effort to treat you especially well. Your opinion of me will matter to me. The dictionary uses the words "deference" and "esteem" and that's accurate.
This is the kind of respect that's worth a lot. This is the kind of respect I hope to earn from people (though I don't know how much I succeed), and the people I respect in this way are the ones I seek out in life, the people I want to be around.
Here are just a few things that will not automatically earn you my respect (in the latter, important sense).
- Being older than me.
- Being friendly to me.
- Being related to me.
- Being clergy.
- Being rich.
- Being famous for something silly (e.g. sports, acting, singing)
- Having a higher position than me in a company.
- Being respected by lots of other people for a stupid reason.
- Demanding my respect.
Let's take age, for example. I agree that we should always respect the elderly to a degree, in the superficial sense; I'll hold the door extra long for them. Staying alive a long time is hard in this world, so kudos for that.
But just because you're old doesn't mean your opinion is worth more than mine, or indeed, worth anything at all. In fact many times it's the opposite. Some people grew up in different times, when racism, sexism, homophobia and such were universal, and while many people have changed since then, many others haven't. For example...
While 41 percent Americans under 45 support legalizing gay marriage, only 18 percent of Americans over 65 agree, and nearly half of seniors do not think there should be any legal recognition of same-sex marriage.
41% sucks, but it's way better than 18%. To some degree I can't blame older people for still believing these things; the world was different 65+ years ago, literally everyone had horrid beliefs. People tend to adopt the opinions of society at the time they were raised. Probably I hold some beliefs myself today that will seem horrific in 50 years because I'm too ignorant to see how they're wrong.
However, in another sense, I very much can and do blame anyone who clings to a harmful belief. There's no excuse for it. Age isn't an excuse.
This doesn't just apply to social issues, though social issues are a good example. It could be beliefs about programming practices or views of science and medicine or anything else.
If people progressively learned things over time and used those things to inform their beliefs, then yeah, old people would always be the smartest/wisest people around, and I would respect older people universally. But that often doesn't happen. Many people (of all ages) stop, decide their beliefs are perfect, and cling to them until they die. Many people use their accumulated knowledge and experience to come up with clever (but wrong) justifications for their crappy beliefs. Or they just don't care.
Age is perhaps a necessary condition for wisdom, but it's not a necessary and sufficient condition. Older people definitely have the most potential for wisdom, but many people seem to squander that potential. Sometimes I suspect that society advances not by lots of people changing their minds, but by people with crappy beliefs getting old and dying and leaving a new generation behind with incrementally better beliefs. (I don't know if this is correct. Someone should do a study.)
Being family doesn't excuse your crappy beliefs either. Nor does being my boss, being a pop star, being rich or anything else. If your beliefs suck, I will look down upon you for that.
Here are some things that will earn you my respect.
- Being demonstrably intelligent, rational, skilled and ethical, valuing the truth, and having a desire to improve oneself over time.
Oh wait, there's just that one.
I'm lucky that some of my family members are intelligent and reasonably rational and ethical. But many aren't, and I don't respect those ones. I've had bosses who were worthy of respect and some who weren't, and I didn't last long at jobs where they weren't. I'm perplexed that celebrities speak and people listen to them; what have they done to earn the right to be listend to?
I am confused and saddened by societies where people are supposed to "respect their elders", in the sense of giving their opinions weight, or to be unconditionally loyal to their families. What a horrible idea.
Personally, I had many horrible beliefs in my youth, partly due to the sucky place I grew up, partly due to the ignorance and na?vet? of youth, partly due personal weakness, or who knows what. I gave my beliefs long consideration and got rid of many of them. Theist => atheist, "homosexuality is wrong" => "no it's not, you idiot" and so on.
I don't think I can be blamed (much) for the sucky things my brain absorbed as a child, but if I still believed those things as an adult, I should absolutely be blamed and judged for them. If I still ignorantly believe stupid things right now, I should be blamed and judged for that (and I hope someone will point it out). I don't want anyone to respect me unless I've earned it.