I expect to be disrespected. Far too often I find myself, breath bated, response mechanisms on alert, just waiting for the person I’m talking to to suddenly lash out at me. I expect them to hurt me. It feels like a matter of ascertaining when it will happen, not if it will happen. This is by no means a reflection upon the company I keep. Fortunately, I have no reason to believe that the people in my life seek to hurt me, in fact I have every reason to know otherwise. Partly, this may be because I am exceedingly cautious about who I allow into my life these days, but it is mostly because I am lucky enough to know many people who would never find it acceptable to respond to life with violence. And yet. My body is poised, permanently it seems, on the threshold of a fight for my integrity. I don’t seem able to believe that respect could be offered willingly, I cannot relax into that expectation. My system – my mind and my body – can only rest in readiness – if that oxymoron can in any way describe this state – for a desperate battle for respect. Respect is hard won, or not at all.
Perhaps one of the reasons rape is so devastating, so uncontained and remorseless, in the impact it metes out upon its victims, is it seems to confirm a truth which continues to lurk in the unacknowledged depths of our communal subconscious – the assertion that only certain people really deserve respect. Why is that as human beings we are still so very, very far from carrying out that basic affirmation at the beginning of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”? Deep within me, buried in my chest, hooked into my flesh is the knowledge of disrespect. Like a cumbersome, hulking deadweight, it has been attached to my heart and then sunk within me. The daily ebb and flow of life, not to mention those frightening storms that sweep in unexpectedly from over the horizon, yank the chain about and with each and every movement, no matter how seemingly gentle, my heart is torn at a little more.
Women matter. It feels absurd to me that it would even need to be stated, that it wouldn’t already be overwhelmingly obvious to every single one of us. But, from my own experience, it very definitely does. Every living being matters. Each and every human being has equal rights to life, liberty and opportunity. That every being matters is a wonderful thing – it means we, ourselves, matter! Already. Without being required to do anything to prove it or warrant it. Simply existing is already being of value, contributing value. However, it is also a very significant responsibility, one that rests as equally with each and every one of us as our value does. Every living being is opaque, at least to some degree, to others. We can never know precisely what others think, feel and desire – hell, it is more often than not difficult enough to know precisely what we think, feel and desire ourselves. There is only one way to find out. ASK. Communication, language, is not superfluous. It is a survival mechanism, a necessary tool. Without it we cannot manage or mediate the equal, yet competing, claims of our own rights to respect and integrity and others’ identical rights.
Disrespect does not simply emerge from knowing what someone wants or needs and ignoring it. It begins when we assume that we already know, without checking first. We can never know without stopping to check. We always need to find out. The matter is never too small, too insignificant to not stop and reflect upon its impact on others, to not pause to confirm that everyone is in agreement, to not give people the genuine chance to refuse or disagree. Perhaps we misunderstood. Perhaps something’s changed. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps – the possibilities are literally endless. Respect means being able to defer our desires, our own course of action long enough to see how others feel about it. Respect means remembering that what we want is only part of the picture. Respect means understanding that our perspective is always only that – ours. It is unique. As is everyone else’s. As well as you think you know people, they always remain opaque. Too many of us know only too well that forgetting that – or worse, choosing to ignore it – and acting anyway can be catastrophic in its effect. Before you do, ask. It may seem a small act but it constructs something of inestimable value for all of us, something that each of us yearns for, something we cannot live without – respect.