The Psychology of Disrespect


Rabbi Michael Lerner has noted people “hunger for communities of meaning that can transcend the individualism and selfishness that we see around us and that will provide an ethical and spiritual framework that gives our lives some higher purpose.”

A major obstacle to the existence of such communities is a psychological one, a widespread lack of respect.

In my decades of work as a journalist, a social change activist, who has been helpful in making some social changes, and an advocate for people’s rights, who had some acquaintance with officials and bureaucrats involved in denying them their rights, I have witnessed in many areas a shocking lack of respect.

Social researchers have uncovered one important reason why. Many individuals have a profound insecurity about whether they themselves are respected.

Our entire nation was created through a declaration affirming all people are created equal, in short, all of us are important and worthy of respect. Nevertheless, in everyday life many have been conditioned to believe they must struggle for respect, whether on elementary school playgrounds, teenage cliques, getting a job and holding onto it or maintaining their dignity in old age homes. Most devastating of all, many feel they must struggle for respect in their own families. Psychiatrist Alice Miller wrote that many children were “never loved for what they were,” but were “needed and exploited for their achievements, success, and good qualities.” In short, they served as tools or objects to win respect for their parents.

On the other hand, many feel an overwhelming preoccupation with getting respect, a fear of being rejected, of being ” a nobody.” Even with total strangers, they have developed an obsession about making an impression.

This is because when many people are not respected, they often lose respect for themselves. Many subjectively feel that being rejected represents proof that they are not in tune with reality. They get an unconscious metaphysical feeling that other’s scorn or rejecting remarks represent the judgement of the world, a verdict by an Ultimate Reality that they are an inappropriate part of the universe.

Researchers found that in order to ease such insecurity, many seek respect by taking it away from others, trying to become “a success” by making someone else “a failure,” gaining recognition through another’s humiliation, trying to become “a somebody,” by making other people “nobodies.”

As a result people are pushed into a never ending, contradictory, and often self defeating attempt to be admired by those they are trying to defeat, thwart, and devalue.

Over a half century ago the great psychiatrist, Karen Horney, showed how this worked.

She noted, “Widespread competition pervades all human relationships,” and “whether the point of competition be popularity, competence, attractiveness, or any other value, it greatly impairs the possibility of reliable friendship.”

Modern researchers have seen this at very young ages.

Rachel Simmons in her book, Odd Girl Out, described how in the competition for popularity among girls in elementary school, junior high and high school, many abandon old friends and cruelly “gang up on them” in order to get into the more popular cliques.

She suggested that the race for popularity can be almost as hazardous as anorexia.

“If some girls, who want to be skinny starve themselves,” she wrote, “some girls trying to be popular destroy one another.”

She added even after a girl gets her “coveted status” of popularity, her insecurity remains.

As one girl she interviewed put it, “It’s like every second, you need to be perfect. Your makeup needs to be perfect. You need to be wearing perfect clothes…[The hardest part] is you’re not perfect.”

With boys the struggle for respect takes on an added dimension. Their struggle is more aggressive and aggressiveness is associated with their sexual identity.

Simmons admires this, seeing their hostility as open and direct. As a feminist, she believes that it represents a “freedom” she wishes was available to girls.

“Aggression,” she wrote, “is the hallmark of masculinity…the popularity of boys is in large part determined by their ability to play rough. They get peer respect for resisting authority and being tough, troublesome, and dominating.”

However, far from representing freedom, this can be an emotional slavery. In the actual life of boys, aggressiveness can be compulsory and compulsive.

Psychologist Jean Baker Miller noted, “Boys are made to fear NOT being aggressive, lest they be found wanting, be beaten out by another, or worst of all act like a girl.”

Since Sigmund Freud got his label for the Oedipus Complex from one of Sophocles’ classic plays, it may not be out of line to name this male fear of aggression deficiency after a modern movie. Let’s call it a “Rambo Complex.”

Boys are programmed into the Rambo Complex in much the same way the Russian psychiatrist, Pavlov, conditioned dogs to be afraid of ringing bells. Pavlov systematically rang a bell just before giving the dogs painful electric shocks. The dogs associated the bell ringing with the pain and became terrified whenever they heard it.

Often when boys show traits that are labeled feminine, including the failure to behave aggressively, their friends, classmates, and adults around them, sometimes including their parents, administer tormenting doses of verbal abuse, which creates shame and self hatred.

William Pollack , a psychological researcher from the Harvard Medical School, wrote that “Shame is how others behave toward boys on the playing field, school rooms, summer camps and in their homes.”

Aggressiveness, in contrast to healthy assertiveness, inherently represents a lack of respect, a willingness to hurt others, whether emotionally or physically.

As a result of this shaming process, many boys are brainwashed into feeling that in order to keep their self-respect they must show disrespect to others, while responding very aggressively when anyone shows disrespect to them.

Destructive competition does not vanish with adulthood and what is generally defined as “maturity.” Often this mentality affects (or infects) business and politics.

Some followers of Karl Marx, who rigidly proclaim a strict materialist point of view, attribute this to the class struggle and economic determinism. It would certainly be wrong to discount the influence of economic and material factors, but we must not ignore the ways psychological factors determine them. One must remember class is not a material substance, but an abstract classification as to which people a society considers worth respecting. Frequently the drive to get material things is motivated by more than an economic desire for the things themselves. It is often motivated by the psychological recognition that these material things represent signs of status, in short, respect.

One might add that history represents a struggle between those seeking respect and those trying to deny them respect. While this often meant a struggle between different classes, it also often represented a struggle between those in the same class, such as kings and feudal lords or between those running different businesses today.

The pressures of the continuous struggle for respect often leads to the ultimate form of disrespect, disrespect for human life, for other’s very being.

Almost every day we hear on TV news of crimes, which seem totally senseless, of men killing their wives and girlfriends, kids in places like Columbine shooting up their schools, motorists caught up in what is now commonly called “road rage,” shooting other motorists, because they are frustrated about their driving. A few years ago we heard constantly heard about “random shootings,” where individuals killed people they did not know before committing suicide themselves.

In a large number of cases of violence, the murderers were insecure about receiving respect and were trying to gain it, keep it or restore it, when they felt it was lost. Instead of calling such actions “crimes of passion,” it might be more accurate to call them “crimes of respect.”

Several decades ago the Family and Youth Institute asked a national sampling of young people to list the chief causes of violence to which they were exposed. The youngsters basically listed acts of disrespect — teasing, put downs, gossip and rejection.

Around that time the Task Force on Violence in Wayne County, Michigan stated, “Among teenagers and adults, a mix of pride, goading and ignorance often escalates arguments and even dirty looks into violent confrontations.”

A number of years afterwards newspapers and TV stations reported how a man in his thirties killed a teenage boy for giving him a dirty look.

One of the few cases, where a random shooter revealed motives for his actions, involved a young man who slaughtered people in a shopping mall before killing himself. He left a note stating he lost his last job, felt like a failure, and decided to end his life, but added that before he died, he wanted to do “something important.” Clearly he felt that the only way he could give his life importance was to rob others of their lives.

Some violence is caused by the Rambo Complex and people’s ideas about masculinity. Ever since the days of Tom Sawyer, some boys as young as six or seven (as well as their parents) believed, practically as a matter of dogma, that any real boy must get into fights. When kids grow older, these attitudes can sometimes result in more than blows and punches. Sociologist Elijah Anderson noted some kill others in order to ” prove their manhood.”

Sociologist Tristram Bridges described those involved in random shootings as “very conformist to [these concepts of] masculinity.”

He added, “It is a terrible statement about American masculinity to say that when you’re emasculated, one way to respond is to open fire.”

To be fair, some note that certain women have fallen into the Rambo Complex in an attempt to escape the humiliation of their second class status and to gain respect. Elijah Anderson wrote in 1994 that some teenager girls “in the streets” had been “mimicking the boys” and developing “their own version of manhood,” though he added their violence was confined to fist fights or egging the boys into violence. Feminist writer Collette Dowling in her book, Perfect Women, noted with regret that in the business world some females have been adopting a “male model.”rushing into the “bloodbath of competition.”

One must add that some of the worst destruction of human life have been caused quietly and routinely by company officials in this “bloodbath of competition.”

At least one woman may be challenging this in a largely male dominated firm. Last year Mary Baba, a new CEO of General Motors, testified before the U.S. Congress that the engineers of her company made unsafe cars, because of a “culture of cutting corners,” in short, trying to increase profits at the expense of human life.

Ms. Barra promised to change this company culture. If this was more than public relations, one wishes her success. However, there are reports that her firm had not been the only business which had such a culture.

For years companies with such cultures have made unsafe products or poisoned our environment, causing more deaths than those attributed to Lucrezia Borgia and endangered more Americans than a handful of terrorists.

To cite one example, as I am writing this article, I heard TV journalist Megan Kelly report that employees of a drug company have been illegally selling an addictive and dangerous drug for the wrong ailments and bribed doctors to give phoney prescriptions for it. Although the company, Insys, itself denied involvement, it did sign a cash settlement with the Nebraska government over this.

One person quoted on the air, stated, he wondered how the employees involved “could have slept at night, because they knew they were killing people.”

In an even more shocking example According to Deborah Hastings of the Associated Press in 1976 employees in a firm, ironically called U.S. Ecology, told state inspectors in Nevada they illegally poured radioactive liquid waste directly into the ground, an,d that some of the employees, with the help of the company president, opened radioactive containers, so the dangerous contents could be sold in the town.

Thinking about the people in such companies, who initiate or perpetuate such practices or simply go along with them, we have to ask how they can sleep at night. Do they ever feel pangs of remorse at the lives that are lost or the concern about those being harmed? Should we classify those in business who put money so far above human lives as sociopaths or psychopaths?

However one wishes to classify them, it seems safe to say that aside from the temptation, when there is a possibility of vast gains, there is a fear of being fired and unemployed. This involves more than a fear of economic hardship. In this great competition for respect, they fear being considered “a failure” or “a loser,” and this fear may be as deep as the fear some involved in more direct violence have of being emasculated. For some in business, failure and losing may represent the same thing.

The obsessive competition for respect not only stimulates violence, but weakens the generally recognized psychological restraints on violence, much like the AIDS virus weakens immunity to disease.

Many, caught in the Rambo Complex, have developed a phobia about feeling. Dr. Pollack noted boys are pressured to label all emotions as feminine, but anger. He stated that in order to avoid the shame of feeling feminine, many hide, repress, or block out their emotions and create a false personality, a “tough guy” personality, and become alienated from their own feelings.

I remember years ago, when volunteering at an inner city YMCA, I was told by an amused female worker, how a teenage boy wandered into a room, where younger children were making Christmas decorations.

He spontaneously cried out, “Oh, they’re pretty!”

Then he looked shamefaced, embarrassed at expressing or even having feelings about Christmas, his childhood or simply feelings for something beautiful.

When men and boys are pressured to see their positive feelings as a source of shame, they are at least to some extent programmed to hate their capacity to love.

Dr. Pollack declared, “Society is pushing males at an early age to sacrifice that part of themselves, which is loving, caring, and affectionate.”

In addition, all too often, males view moral feelings as feminine, and men with strong moral values have become ashamed to talk about it.

Feelings represent our sense of life. For those who do not believe in an afterlife, death means losing our feelings forever. To the extent that men are ashamed of their feelings, they become hostile to their own sense of life and react with hostility and scorn to the sense of life in others. This makes it harder for them to feel concern about other’s physical life or to have respect for life in general.

In some instances the Rambo Complex weakens the sense of self preservation. Many adolescent boys get involved in such potentially suicidal activities as taking addictive drugs, driving too fast, or driving while drunk, because they are terrified that unless they do, those in their peer groups will label them unmasculine sissies.

The Rambo Complex contains many, if not all, the qualities Freud attributed to a death instinct.

On the hand the obsessive competition for respect in the business world may lead people to repress compassion. Psychiatrists from Freud and Jung to Alice Miller noted that through psychological projection, people become hostile to traits in others that they fear in themselves. Some may repress any empathy for those who lose or fail in such a competition in order to repress the fear of becoming losers or failures themselves.

For many caught in their heat of this competition, this desperate fear of becoming “a failure” or “loser” often drowns out feelings of compassion or conscience for anyone in the general public that may be hurt by their actions. Such people may be viewed as collateral damage in their drive for success.

In this climate, what do those, who clearly lose or fail, feel they can do to keep self respect? All too often, like the random shooter I mentioned before, they try to keep their dignity by harming others.

Many may point out that healthy competition can lead people to excel and may result in great benefits to society. However, as I noted before, for all too many people, the struggle for respect seems the ultimate reality. For those caught up in this view of “reality”, winning seems everything and whether their efforts create great benefits or great harm, seems besides the point.

With such a view of reality, many see ruthlessness and acts of cruelty as “realistic.” This is emotionally like subscribing to a cult that believes the devil rules the world and represents the heart of reality and to get in tune with reality is to play the devil’s game by the devil’s rules. Whether or not there is an actual devil, they are doing an effective job of turning this world into a hell.

To correct such current conditions in the world, to work for meaningful changes in society, it will be necessary to work for some change in people’s mentality. If we are to make any progress in healing the world, we must also provide healing for people’s insecurity about receiving respect. We must consider ways to create a greater climate of basic respect and an understanding of the dignity of all.

I have personally been involved in efforts, which represent steps in the right direction. They may suggest ways that others can go further in increasing self respect and respect for others.

To create a climate of respect it is good to start with children. In the early 1990s, as head of an umbrella organization, including the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development, created by the mother of the civil rights movement, and the Greater Detroit chapter of what was then the National Conference of Christians and Jews, while working later as a consultant for the school district in Oak Park, Michigan, and as a free lance journalist for some locaI and national newspapers, I prepared a list of ways individual educators could emphasize areas in their subject that deal with respect. This can go beyond preaching.

Teachers of English can examine wise and foolish ways characters in literature seek respect. They can point out how some characters like Shakespeare’s Richard III seek respect by grabbing power or others like Pip in Dickens’, Great Expectations, reject their selves, their roots and those who love them, in order to gain the respect of others. Love stories often involve respect (and disrespect) between men and women. Works by minorities often touch on using inner strength to deal with the experience of ongoing disrespect, something that can be of value to young people of all races, ethnic and economic backgrounds.

One elementary school teacher requested me to make a list of stories that teach respect, which she could read to the children in her class.

Many fairy tales tell the stories of people facing emotional abuse and the most crushing experiences of disrespect. For instance, there is

– A young girl subject to a sadistic system of disrespect in her family, where she is treated as a low status servant and given a mocking nickname of “Cinderella.”

– A duckling rejected, because he is considered ugly.

– A reindeer named Rudolph, scorned, ostracized, and continually insulted, because of a physical characteristic that made him lookdifferent — a red nose– by reindeers, who assumed that what is different must be ridiculous or bad (a good observation on the origin of racial prejudice.)

In telling these stories, teachers can show how these characters are disrespected for foolish reasons, that disrespect arises from a lack of vision and makes people unable to understand, appreciate or reckon with the qualities of the hero or heroine, which lead them to triumph. They might add that some heroes were notable for showing respect for some disrespected by others, such as the poor and hungry.

The Emperor’s New Clothes is unique in that it encourages children to have respect for their own insights. While everyone was intimidated by the swindlers, a little child was able to recognize the emperor had nothing on.

One particularly perceptive teacher suggested to me that telling stories from different nations and ethnic groups can create respect for people in these countries and groups.

History teachers might show how much history has been affected by those struggling for respect and those trying to deny them respect. It would be useful to show how much of our own country’s history involved groups coming to America seeking human dignity and respect, while denying it to others, such as Native Americans, African Americans and the immigrants, who came later.

Civics and Social Studies teachers can show the safeguards in our law, such as the Bill of Rights and the system of checks and balances, designed to prevent officials from becoming powerful enough to disrespect people’s rights. It might also be good for educators to explore how such safeguards sometimes break down and some citizens fall through the cracks.

A physical education teacher told me he was trying to emphasize how sportsmanship involved not only being a gracious loser, but, those in a winning team, showing respect for those who lose and showing respect for those in one’s own team, who make mistakes.

Instructors in Health classes or Social Studies can teach mediation and conflict resolution techniques as ways of settling disputes with respect for all concerned.

Jacqueline Campbell, a professor at the John Hopkins School of Nursing suggested to me that teachers in Health classes should deal with respect in dating situations, including respect for the date’s religious or personal convictions about sex.

Teachers in different subjects, such as English and Health, can show how rigid stereotypes of what it means to be masculine and feminine can lead to disrespect for others and disrespect for oneself.

In my research as a consultant in the Oak Park Schools, I also discovered two fascinating high school English courses that had existed in West Bloomfield, Michigan. One involved works in literature involving the search for the good life — realizing the good life for everyone. The other involved works dealing with the American Dream.

I have also been involved in trying to increase respect in the adult world by working to increase awareness and understanding about the
concerns and struggles of people on the grassroots efforts.

All too often these problems have been ignored in the media, unless they are accompanied by something sensational — a protest, demonstration or even violence.

In the 60s I was struck by comments of a nun from Selma, Alabama, the scene of the historic civil rights march. She noted how the media called attention to the civil rights movement and how the presence of the media restrained the violence of the police.

“But,” she asked, “what will happen, when the reporters go home?”

She feared then that the media would ignore the everyday oppression or danger African Americans faced or the harassment of her own Catholic hospital for serving Black patients.

There is another structural problem. Many, if not most officials, hire people for the purpose of providing public relations. They send out press releases designed to give a favorable impression of their actions, policies, and programs. All too often editors print such press releases as straight news stories.

I have found how possible it is to challenge this structures. As a journalist, remembering what the Alabama nun had said, I actively sought the reactions of those affected by the actions of those in office and did my own investigative reporting, much to the chagrin of PR employees and the politicians, who hired them. I kept in close touch with small community groups like block clubs and neighborhood associations, learning that in many cases they not only represent ordinary citizens, but they are at least on a small level working for community and meaning in their immediate environment.

In the early 1970s I realized it was possible for private citizens to write their own press releases describing real situations which could counter any inaccuracies in the official PR versions . I started and directed a volunteer organization sending out press releases on the problems of different individuals and organizations.

It was called United Community Ombudsmen after a designated office established in Sweden to give private citizens a chance to appeal abuses in government

Our organization was not, of course, a government ombudsman and did not have any government power. It was a community ombudsman, relying on the power of public opinion in a democracy.
It got results.

Our first concern was actions of officials in Detroit, Michigan taking away homes from poor citizens without giving them comparable relocation. The city was legally obliged to relocate them, but the obligation ended if residents moved out on their own. Therefore, officials, who wanted residents to leave, had an incentive to cut services in their area necessary for health and safety, making many desperate to get out and get out fast, get anywhere even a slum. In effect, the government was creating homelessness. While many around did move out, residents of one small block stayed, refusing to budge until they got the relocation they were entitled to.

When the city stopped an essential service, the United Community Ombudsman wrote press releases and went on the air revealing it and the city restored it. After some time passed, officials cut something else and we started the process all over again. The residents did not leave and a decade later low and middle income housing developments were finally built for them and those in other areas who had been displaced.

We made other strides as well.

In 1974 we persuaded the city councils of Detroit and Highland Park, Michigan to extend anti discrimination laws to those with disabilities. This was one of the things that helped pave the way decades later for the passage of the federal American Disabilities Act (ADA), which extended such protection across the nation.

In the late 1970s, when police in Highland Park, Michigan had a policy of refusing to respond to cases of wife assault (dismissing this as “domestic violence”), our organization drafted an ordinance requiring ” equal protection of the law” for victims of such family violence. At first it was opposed and ridiculed by the administration. However, when we were able to get coverage and resolutions from a variety of organizations, representing churches, feminists, and social workers, the City Council unanimously passed it and the Mayor enforced it.

One reason for our organization’s basic accomplishments is that at least on certain issues, we were able to bring together organizations representing people of different areas, religions, and income levels, creating not only political alliances, but personal friendships and much respect.

Our organization no longer exists. Some of its members died out and some moved out. It’s accomplishments were incremental, but they affected a number of lives and probably saved some lives. If more organizations are formed on a grassroots level, they can do much more.

One basic way to create an atmosphere of respect, one which can be done by people in all walks of life, is to show basic respect themselves.

Dr. Alice Miller wrote how adults who are positive and respectful toward young people, can heal the psychological damage of child abuse.

“Such people may be oblivious to the role they are playing,” she suggested, but added, “children in difficult situations can see there is such a thing as love in the world. In the best cases, they learn how to develop trust…and to accept the love and kindness that comes their way…”

Gavin de Becker, a professional in predicting and preventing violence against celebrities and a victim of child abuse himself, noted, “I have learned that the kindness of a teacher, a coach, a police officer, a neighbor, the parent of a friend, is never wasted.”

“These moments,” he wrote, “are likely to pass with neither the child nor the adult fully knowing the significance of the contribution… Though nothing apparently marks the occasion, inside the child a new view of the self might take hold. He is not just a person deserving of neglect, not just a person who is a burden to the sad adults in his life, not just a child who fails to solve his family’s problems, who fails to rescue them from pain or madness or addiction or poverty or unhappiness.”

De Becker noted without such adults, children logically deduce from abuse, “” If that is how I am treated, then this is the treatment I am worthy of.”

Dr. Miller made another point. In the “total absence” of such adults, “children glorify the violence they have been subjected to.”

In the same way it is possible to heal damage to adults, who have faced abuse, not only from parents, but from different elements of society, who may glorify the disrespect they have been subjected to, and inflict it on others.

In working to create a climate of respect, perhaps we can begin by freeing ourselves from the programing we may have had and the lingering fear we are not worthy of respect, so we can feel free to appreciate the worth of others.


Ron Seigel is a journalist who has written for prominent local and national publications, a human rights activist who has been an advocate for individual citizens and grassroots communities for over four decades, and has worked as a consultant on teaching respect for the school district in Oak Park, Michigan. His email address

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