Thursday, June 25, 2009

Day 9 - Respect

Respect is the value I hold most dearly. It is the foundation of relationships and is critical to building trust with others. In certain ways, respect manifests itself as a kind of ethic, as in the concept of reciprocity - the 'Golden Rule." A person attempting to live by this rule treats all people, not just members of his or her in-group, with fairness, consideration and honesty. In that way respect is arguably the most essential basis for human rights, playing a huge role in resolving conflict and contributing to positive change.

I have observed that in defining what respect is, most modern cultures have moved way from the reciprocity principle and now think of respect as deference to power and authority. In our capitalist society, respect is granted to those with wealth and positional power. It doesn't take much to figure that out - think of the salesperson fawning over a well dressed person who walks into a store (remember that scene in Pretty Woman?). Or a gang shooting each other with guns to assert their power. The notion that people kill each other in the name of 'respect' is, in my mind, chilling.

This idea of equating respect with affluence is flagile. Take away the money and power and is the respect still there? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Many times the respect goes with it. This is because emotionally, respect has to be earned, not bought, and fundamentally as humans deep down we value goodness in others over the almighty dollar.

So this brings me to my picture. Over lunch I came across 'Jeff' panhandling for change on Spring Garden Road. I wanted to get his take on the topic of respect. Amongst our social classes I'd say panhandlers are amongst the least respected. After chatting with him for awhile his take on this was that overall, North Americans worship the rich and fear the poor. It's an ugly and sad truth. When it comes to people begging for change most people feel that when you give them money they will spend it on booze or drugs. Or that they should be spending their time finding a job and getting back on their feet instead of looking for a handout. Or that people bumming for money are young punks who don’t even need the money. Basically, they assume the worst about you and think they know what is best for you.

My take on why people don't respect the homeless is that they act as a mirror on the fragility of our 'false' sense of respect, the one that equates respect with wealth, or lack thereof. Many of us are a few paycheques away from being in their shoes, especially in this economy, and it is a painful reminder.

As I talked with Jeff I notice that he greeted everyone who walked by with a 'have a nice day.' Nearly every person ignored him, only one person even looked at him, and most people picked up their step just a little faster. He said this is what bothered him the most - people who do not even acknowledge his existence. How can one advance himself in life if they do not have the respect of others, or are given the chance to develop self-respect themselves. Perhaps the reason he greets everyone with 'have a nice day' is his version of extending an olive branch.

I should note that as thanks for allowing me to take his picture I offered a small token of monetary compensation. He refused the money when offered. "When it comes to talking about respect," he said with a glint in his eyes, "it is not about the money."

Wiser words could not have been said.


  1. I was going to comment on twitter, but it ended up being too long. Then I ended up writing even more.

    I see this guy every time I walk down Spring. I either pick up my pace, or I'll shake my head, and say "sorry, I don't have anything". Not only to him, but to the other people on the streets.

    And that's the thing, you don't know if they are asking money for food/essentials, or if they're just going to use it for their bad habits/addictions.

    I've noticed lately that some people, of a younger crowd, will ask you for change for the bus. So you give them a bus ticket, and then the second you turn around, they're selling it. So what do they need the money for, if they're not going to use it for a bus?

    I think that's why people don't have respect for the homeless. It's because they don't know if the person who is asking for change, is being truthful or is lying. It's the people who are lying, that ruin it for everyone else, who are really trying to do better for themselves.

    That's my thought on this subject.

    You have a great theme this week, can't wait to see the rest.

  2. Thanks for commenting April. Yes, I have observed the same thing. I suspect this represents a minority of people who beg for money but as you said, they can ruin it for everyone. Personally I do not give money to panhandlers for a number of reasons, which I will not get into here. By not giving money I do not feel that I am being disrespectful. However, I do try to acknowledge their existence. I look the person in the eye, give a nod of the head, and say a simple 'sorry' rather than ignoring them and walking by. According to the chap I talked to this simple gesture costs nothing and goes a along way.

  3. I appreciate your thoughts. I wish people were aware that EVERYONE has a story. People don't just wake up one day and decide to beg for survival. They have probly been begging for respect and attention since the moment they were born. It is very simple to even say hello and make them feel like they are somebody.....because they are.