Monday, February 18, 2008

Commanding and receiving respect

Today being the (inaugural) Family Day holiday here in Ontario, I took my son and a couple of his friends on an outing. We went to a wonderful exhibition called Secret Riches - Ancient Peru Unearthed at the Canadian Museum of Civilization. The exhibition was about the Sicán people, who preceded the Incas by around 400 years.

The Sicán developed advanced metallurgical technology, and produced fabulous artwork, such as the headdress on the left. A text panel nearby the headdress referred to a Sicán lord who would wear such a headdress "commanding and receiving respect".

Conspicuous consumption continues to this day. I was reminded of the recent news about a UAE business man who paid the equivalent of US$14 million for a vanity license plate (somehow the description seems inadequate). The Abu Dhabi plate bears a single digit: "1".

To be fair, the plate was purchased at a charity auction. But still, $14 million? "The price is fair. After all, who among us does not want to be number one?" said the business man.

The wish to be treated with respect by others is universal. But I believe that the kind of respect we all want so badly can't be commanded or purchased. (A number of different kinds of respect have been delineated, and it seems to me that somewhere in there is a core psychological need.)

Still, I believe that each of us is called to treat all others with respect. Immanuel Kant wrote:
Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or the person of any other, never simply as a means but always at the same time as an end.
This doesn't necessarily mean respecting what someone has done, which may be heinous to us. But it does mean acknowledging their basic human dignity, and acting accordingly. I think the political implications are fairly immediate.

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