Accounting for Respect

(This is the 8th of 17 posts in my “200 for 200” challenge to myself. We’ve hit over 200 followers in total, but the goal is to have 200 followers through Wordpress subscribers–there are currently 147).

It has recently struck me that we talk about respect as a currency. We do certain things to “pay our respects,” and we talk about those to whom “respect is owed.” We talk about respect being “earned, not given.” Several sci-fi settings I’m aware of–the Eclipse Phase RPG and even The Orville TV show–discuss the use of reputation as a form of currency in a semi-or-fully-post-scarcity economy.

1 Timothy 6:10 tells us that “The love of money is the root of all evil.” Out of curiosity, I went to Strong’s Concordance to look up the word use for “love of money.” It’s philargyria, which comes from a root indicating “avarice” or “avariciousness.” Avariciousness can be applied to more than just money–it applies to the “miserly hoarding of wealth” in a general sense. Greed. This is what I expected to find; it’s axiomatic that it’s the feeling, the obsession and the behavior, rather than the object, that causes the problem.

And here’s where my concern comes in: should respect be something that we commoditize? In other posts (like this one), I’ve talked about the societal tendency (at least in Western cultures) to value people in a capitalistic way–a person is only worth what they produce for consumption or what they generate in terms of income. This, I think, is why stay-at-home parents face a stigma despite the fact that managing a household and rearing children is as or more difficult than many jobs for which people get paid (which, ironically, includes both household management and child-rearing!).

These issues (assigning capitalistic value to a person and commoditizing respect) are related, perhaps symptoms of the same malady, but they’re different things. The previous post referred to above deals with the problem of how we assign value to other people. This post is about the problem of seeing reputation as a form of currency.

As is often the case on this blog, the topic is complex and filled with nuance. In her book The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, the anthropologist Ruth Benedict drew a distinction between “guilt” cultures and “shame” cultures, with an assertion that Christian societies were mostly “guilt” cultures (with notable exceptions) and a focus on Japanese culture as a “shame” culture. These assignments are, of course, debatable, and further categories (“fear” culture and the “shame” culture is now sometimes discussed as the “honor-shame” culture) have since been developed. We can also talk about “face” as an aspect of honor-shame cultures and we can debate whether the part of the United States we think of as “the South” is (or formerly was) an honor-type culture where the rest of the country may be something else.

The basic premise of this anthropological view of cultures is that guilt cultures rely on the concepts of justice and punishment (temporal or spiritual) as the enforcer of societal norms and the honor-shame culture relies on the judgment of other by society as the enforcer of norms.

This post is not about an anthropological dissection of social constructs; it is a reflection on the consequences of assigning value to reputation. In my own studies (and I’m accepting this as generally true for sake of discussion), I’ve read writers who argue that many agriculturally-based societies tend to be honor societies (pointing to the agriculturally-dominated economy of the antebellum “South” as an example). I’d like to use this idea to give some form to my thoughts. The argument goes that honor societies (here sometimes contrasted with law societies) use a person’s reputation as a regulatory structure in place of reliance on a legal code. The Southern gentlemen who disavowed a business agreement after the fact would suffer economic consequences for his actions (others would be unwilling to deal with him in the future); this cause-and-effect serves to enforce expectations and provide the predictability and stability that an economy needs to thrive.

It also meant that challenges to a person’s sense of honor unrelated to business dealings had to be vigorously defended, lest an affair unrelated to one’s livelihood bleed over into economic ruin. Hence dueling, honor killings, and all other manner of senseless activities that occupy the fringes of some honor/shame societies, historical and present. It seems especially true that women tend to suffer most from honor-based cultures. I would argue that this is strongly related to the preservation of property rights–both the intense focus on the maintenance of virginity and the use of honor killings as a consequence for premarital sex or adultery stem in great part from controlling who might inherit a family’s property and economic wealth.

That writes large one problem with commoditized reputation: it gives incentive to do things which may be immoral to protect a source of wealth and livelihood. But it also–as with all forms of wealth–has a disproportionate effect, because those will little economic power to begin with are disincentivized to participate in the system. This, in turn, means that those with wealth, reputation and the power that goes along with both being to see those without wealth or reputation as inherently immoral or amoral (though the reliance on this system of honor means that morality is not typically the first motivating factor for anyone). This gives those with power freedom to further exploit and oppress those without by viewing them as morally bankrupt. As Shakespeare’s Apothecary says, “My poverty, but not my will, consents.” Come to think of it, Romeo & Juliet is an excellent example of a contemporary critique of Renaissance European honor culture, given that the crux of the play hangs on the tensive nature of the relationship between love as moral motivator and honor as destroyer of that which love builds up.

Likewise, the Renaissance historian, philosopher and (in my opinion, at least) funny-man, Francesco Guicciardini gave this advice (paraphrased): If you want to ingratiate yourself with someone, do not do a favor for them, ask them for a favor. People would much rather feel that someone is indebted to them than that they are indebted to another, and this creates a bond between you that invites them to return to you to call in that reciprocal favor. The context of the time–Guicciardini was friends with Machievelli and a product of the same tumultuous political systems (and experiments) of early sixteenth century Italy–jibes well with this sort of thinking. But, of course, it is based upon a background of often life-or-death political competitions and the assumption that every man’s ambition should be the accumulation of social, political and economic power. This is the very thing Scripture warns us about, because it skews what is truly important in favor of what is, fleeting, ultimately disappointing and often self-destructive.

And that’s the problem with our tendency to make a commodity of respect and reputation. Our reputations are inextricably bound up in the web of relationships we have with others, our “social networks.” When our focus is on leveraging those relationships–which is really a matter of exploiting the people on the other end of them–we’ve lost sight of the types of relationships we should have with others. Respect merely becomes a currency we cash in for personal benefit. Such an approach removes even the possibility that our relationships are about mutual admiration and celebration of the uniqueness and sacred worth of others.

When we look to the example of Jesus, we see someone who looks past reputation to acknowledge the value of the person. He dines with the sinners and bears harsh words to the Pharisees, whose power and reputations allow them to reject and exploit those “beneath” them.

What would it look like if we viewed respect as something that ought to be shown to every person simply because they, too, are a child of God? What would happen if we stopped talking about “earning respect” and removed our respect for each other as a commodity to be traded for personal benefit? I think we’d have brought the Kingdom of Heaven just a little closer to Earth.