When I was a kid, I knew the quickest way to lose my privileges was to disrespect any authority figure in my life, or to show disrespect for any institutions in our community. As an adult, I value those institutions. I embrace every benefit they offer, and adapt to everything I don’t like.
No matter my experience with these institutions and authority figures, respect remains the foundation of those relationships. My parents expected it, and I didn’t know any other way to behave. Respect was the glue that kept my life intact, and it has been critical to the functions I’ve squeezed into life’s framework. Meanwhile, I assumed similar respect was ingrained in everyone around me. I believed it was the unique American quality that formed our democracy’s bedrock.
In fact, as a history buff, I believe respect for authority and our institutions separates America from the rest of the world. Unfortunately, respect has diminished in recent years. Many people give it scant consideration. We’re bombarded daily with videos of road rage; incorrigible kids disobeying teachers and coaches; young adults getting annoyed and flippant with managers, professors and police officers; and angry people making hurtful, condescending, denigrating or outrageously unfair comments to others online.
It’s bad enough that common decency and civility has eroded or vanished, but when it extends to authority figures, it damages or destroys the structure people need to grow and mature. When people show such disrespect, you wonder how they’ll learn to lead a productive professional life. And with whom will they share personal experiences? Worse, how many young people will seek careers in education, management, leadership, support, protection, and medical or legal assistance when people in those fields are increasingly insulted and slighted?
Jay McAninch, ATA's President/CEO, said he worries about the lack of respect shown for the American institutions that make this country so great. "Regardless of the person or their party, we’ve seen declining respect for our nation’s highest elected leaders," he said. Photo Credit: prwatch.org
I worry even more about the lack of respect shown for the American institutions that make this country so great. Consider the office of the president of the United States. Regardless of the person or their party, we’ve seen declining respect for our nation’s highest elected leaders. I watched George W. Bush be disrespected in many ways and, more recently, we saw Barack Obama shouted down by members of Congress. Obama also endured endless claims about his origins, and many people simply wouldn’t acknowledge his presidency because he is black.
The Trump presidency has seen disrespect of the president’s office hit new lows. Nearly 70 congressmen who did not like the election’s outcome boycotted the inauguration, even though it’s the single most important event in our democracy’s long history. The inauguration peacefully transfers power between two people based on the will of our country’s citizens. We’ve also seen a comedian hold up a replica of the president’s severed head, and an actor suggest assassinating the president. Of course, we also have a president who is breaking new ground in the way he taunts, criticizes and makes accusations against those who disagree with him.
Other institutions have also come under fire, including lawyers, clergy, law enforcement, medical professionals, agency heads and elected leaders. Some scrutiny is always warranted and necessary to ensure institutions carry out their responsibilities to the nation. Yet all too much of the rhetoric and actions challenge the need for those institutions in our lives. As bad as this trend is, I’m concerned so few consider what would replace our society’s institutional structures if they’re torn apart? If we don’t respect our authority figures, who will we respect to ensure structure and order in our lives?
Where does it stop? Can we reverse these trends? Yes, I think we can, but it will require us to widely apply a lesson everyone should have learned in childhood: Don’t respond in kind. Turn the other cheek, or ignore the verbal and physical assaults. Someone must take the first step for this to end. Unfortunately, when those who have helped reduce civility and respect had chances to apologize, they delivered hollow statements or offered a defensive apology. That is, the person they attacked somehow deserved it.
For instance, the head-holding comedian apologized while saying the president had “earned” her disrespect. And soon after the shooting at the Republican baseball practice, a longtime Washington Post columnist denigrated the president’s daughter after she called for more respect between the nation’s leaders. The writer’s premise was basically this: “They started it. They’ve been worse than we have. They’re reaping what they’ve sown.”
"Let’s remember that America has navigated nearly four centuries on a foundation of civil debate and discussion," said Jay McAninch, ATA's President/CEO. "That platform shaped our society’s institutions and became the “modus operandii” of our authority figures. Some incidents deviated from the norm, but decorum and respect remained America’s hallmark." Photo Credit: RoyaltyFree Songs via YouTube
Where are we as a nation? When I see what’s happened to our institutions and authority figures, I often see little differentiating us from banana republics. Some will say America has not and will never descend so low, but I urge them to take a hard, objective look at the evidence. Let’s remember that America has navigated nearly four centuries on a foundation of civil debate and discussion. That platform shaped our society’s institutions and became the “modus operandii” of our authority figures. Yes, some incidents deviated from the norm, but decorum and respect remained our hallmark.
I’m worried about our country’s future. We continue to have problems ensuring equal rights and opportunities, but those issues require institutions and leaders to evolve. How do we resume valuing our institutions and authority figures while working to improve both? How do we rekindle spirited debates and discussions where we welcome all views?
Most Americans want the best for themselves, their families, friends and communities. That will never change. What must improve is how we deal with each other, and it can start with each of us individually. Starting today, take a few moments to listen and learn what others are saying. Then, think what was said and share those thoughts constructively. Be considerate of those with whom we disagree. We’re better than what we’ve shown, and it’s time for American to resume leading.
I’m reminded of “Pay it Forward,” a sad but profound movie about a boy who tried to change the world. If we all pay it forward instead of looking backward and pointing fingers, we’ll feel better instantly. And, in time, maybe our institutions and authority figures will return to being central roles in the personal and professional lives of our citizens.
If nothing else, let’s give our children and grandchildren a chance to make the world a better place.