Many years ago, when I was preparing to become an officer in the United States Army, I was in a class where we discussed the difference between respecting a person and respecting a rank. We were being prepared for times in our military careers when we would run across someone we didn’t respect for some reason. The lesson was that in those times a soldier always respected the rank – regardless of their feelings about the individual. If you worked with someone named Captain Smith, and you were aware of his or her personal or professional improprieties, you still respected the fact that that person was a Captain in the United State Army and was due professional and military courtesy.
Although I’m now a civilian, that lesson has stayed with me, and I’ve often thought that the civilian world could use similar instruction on the difference between people and position, and the importance of not confusing the two. As we head into another election cycle, or – to put it more accurately – as we approach an intensified period of a never-ending election cycle, now would be a good time to remember that “Walker” is in fact a Governor, and “Obama” is in fact the President.
It may seem like a subtle thing, but constantly criticizing the President of the United States simply by using his last name can become an intellectual crutch for lazy people. In a country that is increasingly split down the middle between what I believe to be false groupings of conservatives and liberals, citizens can find many ways to only associate with media that reinforces their existing beliefs, and one way that these tribal associations are reinforced is through shared derision of some enemy, and that derision is conveyed by spitting out the enemy’s last name with abandon.
The irony is that people who cannot demonstrate the ability to maintain respect for an office while criticizing the office-holder are the least persuasive among us. As when confronted with a person who curses regularly, listeners often get a sense of a lazy mind and pay less attention to the message.
There are those who engage in the rationalization that the office-holder has done such a poor job and is so derelict in their duties that they do not deserve to receive this respect. This is utter nonsense and simply lets us off the hook from the tough job of articulating a thought that is reasoned beyond the shallow bumper-sticker depth of what passes for “debate” today.
There is one more important reason for why we should pay close attention to the level of respect we give to those in public office: the kids are listening.
I was at a parenting seminar many years ago when someone in the audience brought up the subject of how to motivate kids to keeps their rooms neat. The speaker said “on average, kids keeps their rooms about as neat as parents keep their garage”. This caused most of us in the audience to groan as we contemplated the condition of our respective garages.
The same contradictions are at play when we expect our children to respect their teachers, bosses, and coaches, while at the same time we’re unable to appropriately refer to the President of the United States or the Governor of Wisconsin. Does every kid like all their teachers? Of course not – but good parents know how to tell their kids that regardless of what they might think about a teacher, they are expected to remain respectful and continue to apply themselves.
To be fair, the analogy isn’t perfect. After all, the relationship between teacher and student is one of classroom authority, while the relationship between office-holder and voter is a matter of public service. Also, it is obviously not practical to say “President” every single time we say “Obama”. Newspapers have a good approach to this where they initially refer to “President Barack Obama” at the beginning of an article before switching to only his last name for the remainder. The key to respect, as is so often the case, comes down to one word: tone. You know it when you hear it from your kids, and your kids know it when they hear it from you.
As the electoral hysteria of 2012 unfolds around us, and we are inundated with low-brow commentary and even lower-brow television advertising, the civilian world might consider taking a page from the military and reclaiming a bit of the decorum that we’re missing. Our country would be better for it, and our kids will see us living up to the standards we expect of them. And that’s something we could all respect.
Published January, 2012.