While Marlon Brando in The Godfather usually gets the credit for this quote, he was actually borrowing a bit of wisdom from the Pakistani Beggar King Hussein Nishah (1538–1599), who wrote, “Treat people the way you want to be treated. Talk to people the way you want to be talked to. Respect is earned, not given.”
My father often drove these principles home, as he wanted his children to always show others courtesy and respect; and in doing so, gain the respect and admiration of others. This goes hand-in-hand with the Golden Rule, to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. We can’t expect others to treat us well unless we treat them fairly to begin with.
This establishes a law of reciprocals, whereby you reap what you sow. If parents model love to their children, teachers model fairness to their students, and bosses model integrity to their employees, each home, each classroom and each workplace exemplifies mutual respect. Unfortunately, the opposite also holds true.
What do you do in the face of a cheating boss, when you’re in the company of a bigot, or when you’re getting grief from a mean-spirited bully? You can’t pretend to respect someone who disdains their fellow human beings, can you? You shouldn’t just stay there and take it, should you?
No. Always stand up for what’s right and uphold your principles, Dad would say. But learn to disagree without losing your cool. Don’t stoop down to their level as you defend your position. You can retain your own dignity while standing firm. You don’t have to wrestle in the mud with the other guy.
As I watch the 2016 Presidential Campaign unfold, I see that mud-slinging, name-calling and slandering continue in ever-increasing measure. Mutual respect — or even the courtesy of feigned respect — are long gone among the candidates. The election cycle more resembles a school cafeteria food fight than a once-dignified political process. Vitriol over social media only escalates the rancor, so it spills out into the general electorate and beyond into our fabric of society. Everyone is angry and demanding to be heard, demanding their rights, demanding respect.
People seem to have forgotten, respect cannot be demanded; it must be earned. Put another way, Respect commands itself and it can neither be given nor withheld when it is due.
There’s power in that statement by Eldridge Cleaver, a political activist during the Civil Rights movement of the early 1960s. Respect is a self-sustaining strength that emerges as a natural result after it is earned. It cannot be begged for, demanded or automatically given. When it is due, no one can stop it. But it cannot be fabricated. The seeds of strong character, self-control, humility, and fairness must first be watered. Then due respect will spring forth in full flower.