Like “love,” the word “respect” is fairly limited. It’s another good example of why the English language can only take you so far, and why we must use other tools in order to understand and investigate these concepts a bit further. You can love your best friend, you can love your kids, and you can love a romantic partner — those words are quite different in each scenario, and many other languages have entirely different words for each type of love. It gets even more complicated when you talk concepts like loving your enemies.

Similarly, you can use the word respect when referring to a superior officer in the military, an elderly woman who has lost her sons in WWII, and you can use it when talking about how to treat a woman at a bar. Some might say this makes the word quite diverse; others might say it waters down its meaning.

At the end of the day, there are two primary types of respect: the respect of fellow human beings, and the respect that is earned.

Universal Respect

The first type is the respect that many parents strive to teach their children — “Don’t steal from other kids on the playground,” or “Share with your brother.” It extends to the respect of the opposite sex later in life — “Get consent,” or even chivalrous behavior like, “hold the door open for her.” In fact, holding the door for others has become a courteous way to show respect to everyone. Universal respect also means helping an elderly person load groceries into their car at the store, or pulling over to jump someone’s car.

This is the respect that every human being — by sole merit of being a human — deserves. It means treating people with compassion, poise and assuming that each person has some level of value and dignity that is worth your time.

When I was in Karen State, deep in the jungle of Burma, one man defined “dignity” not as the way the world perceives you (getting caught naked, for example), rather, he said that a person’s dignity is measured by how much they can serve others. If a woman is raped, in Karen culture her dignity is not at stake, so long as she continues to feed the hungry, provide rest to the weary — that sort of thing. If a man could not save his family from the perpetual violence there, his dignity as a man is not at stake. Many of the Karen have suffered these fates, and yet they continue to serve their communities and neighbors with dignity and grace. No one can take dignity from them, except for themselves.

Operating under the Karen definition of dignity, showing other human beings a universal level of respect is what gives a person their dignity.

There is an extreme side to the new wave of Politically Correct (PC) culture that would seek to standardize and almost weaponize respect, forcing it upon others. Instead of showing others how to respect one another, they seek to demand it. However, even if it’s successful — even if people adhered to all the hollow, recycled platitudes, and stayed away from all the words they have deemed evil — it would never foster a culture of real respect between one another.