|RESPECT: AN EXPLORATION|
June 30, 1999
JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, a Gergen Dialogue. David Gergen engages Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, Professor of Education at Harvard University and author of Respect: An Exploration.
DAVID GERGEN: Welcome.
SARA LAWRENCE LIGHTFOOT: Good to be here.
DAVID GERGEN: You write in your new book, Respect, that you want to create a new view of respect. Why do we need that?
SARA LAWRENCE LIGHTFOOT: Well, I think that all of us, every individual probably watching and listening, is concerned about elements and dimensions of disrespect in our society, from the most personal intimate relationships where people feel isolated or assaulted or abused or ignored or neglected to those public arenas, where we see evidence of disrespect from public officials or in professional circles, so I think it s pretty pervasive that we are all preoccupied, in way, with the ways in which we feel respectful relationships are not at the center of our lives.
DAVID GERGEN: Part of the breakdown of civility that we sense in society.
SARA LAWRENCE LIGHTFOOT: Yes. I think civility is sort of the most superficial surface feeling about that, that people aren't being polite to one another. But I think it's even deeper and more profound when I say respect. It really does grow in relationships, and it has to do with commitment and trust.
DAVID GERGEN: Now, your interest in this, you told me before you came here, grew out of your own personal experiences as a child with your parents, watching them.
SARA LAWRENCE LIGHTFOOT: Yes, I think it grew out of recognizing even very early, because even as a child I was an ethnographer, recognizing very early a kind of dissonance; that is, my parents who were, and are, upper-middle-class African American professional people who lived well and who cared deeply about the society they lived in, who often I saw be sort of assaulted by disrespectful comments and behavior, probably mostly because they are black. And yet on the other hand, they somehow transformed that, didn't become embittered by it, and treated everyone that they knew with respect, whether it was a university president or a bishop or a kid shining shoes in town, they treated both with the same sort of deference and attention and empathy.
DAVID GERGEN: How would you reshape the world?
SARA LAWRENCE LIGHTFOOT: Well, I think when most of us think of respect, we think of a hierarchy. We think of approbation, deference offered to someone who is more knowledgeable.
DAVID GERGEN: Showing respect up.
SARA LAWRENCE LIGHTFOOT: Respect up. And the picture is one of a triangle or a pyramid. My view of respect is a circle. It is about symmetry. It's about reciprocity. Even if there are differences in knowledge and status and power and resources and skills, that respect is a great equalizer. It is the ways in which we can be symmetric with one another, and it comes again through this sense of connection in relationships.
DAVID GERGEN: The people you chose to illustrate that point were almost all in the higher point in the hierarchy as we see it. It was a teacher to a student; it was a pastor to someone suffering from AIDS.
SARA LAWRENCE LIGHTFOOT: Right. Right.
DAVID GERGEN: And it was a midwife helping a woman with birthing.
SARA LAWRENCE LIGHTFOOT: On purpose I chose sort of hard examples in a way, people who usually are the ones receiving respect from those they serve, and yet in every case, these were people who saw the need to offer the same sort of respect back to the people who they served, so it was an idea of reducing the hierarchy and creating the symmetry, equality.
DAVID GERGEN: Can you tell us about one of them?
SARA LAWRENCE LIGHTFOOT: Well, Jennifer Doran is a nurse-midwife in the South Bronx who works with black, brown, and poor mothers in a center that she started there, and she thinks about respect primarily as empowerment. If she thinks about what's the central dimension of respect, it is offering mothers and their families and their children the skills, the resources, the knowledge so that they can become better caretakers of their children, so they can become more forceful actors in the world. And so she does this by, in the clinic, first of all, by offering mothers the knowledge of what their bodies are telling them and how their bodies are growing and what's happening with them in terms of health, and ultimately in the birthing room, by giving these families a lot of space and a lot of power to participate fully in the birth of their child.
DAVID GERGEN: Do you have another illustration that was equally poignant in your mind?
SARA LAWRENCE LIGHTFOOT: Well, one of my favorites, and I think often surprising to people, is the notion of curiosity; that one of the central dimensions of being respectful to another person is being genuinely, authentically curious about who you are and what you're about and what your dreams are and what your fears are, and the person who exemplified that was a world- famous portrait photographer. And we often think of photographers as predatory people, as people who steal our images and run away.
DAVID GERGEN: Paparazzi.
SARA LAWRENCE LIGHTFOOT: Exactly. But this photographer, who works with very intense psychological portraits, very large ones, very profound ones, thinks about relationships as being at the center of his portraits. He needs to get to know the people in order to do a good portrait. So much of the activity takes place away from the camera, and very little of it in front of the camera, and he thinks about curiosity as being the central dimension of that, wanting to know who these people are in their lives, wanting to know what they feel and how they think as being really a very important dimension of doing good art.
DAVID GERGEN: It means not only drawing them out, but being willing to listen.
SARA LAWRENCE LIGHTFOOT: Absolutely being willing to listen. And he works a lot with adolescents, who are often the least listened-to group in our society, who feel as if in general adults don't listen, but adults have agendas for them, and it's wonderful to watch this man work with these adolescents, truly interested, quiet, attentive, open to what they're saying rather than in some sense throwing his own agenda over who they should be, which is what many of us do as adults.
DAVID GERGEN: Yes. But it comes back to that point that you've got to be sort of secure in your own core, that you have to work on that before you can give in the way you need to give.
SARA LAWRENCE LIGHTFOOT: Right, that self-respect is really a central dimension of respect, and that -- you know, there's this wonderful Joan Didion quote in "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" where she really talks about being discriminating about offering respect, and that has to do with being able to be both indifferent and loving; that we have to be very selective about these things. If we, in fact, are in a quest for being loved, then it is unlikely that we will ever be able to really join in a real respectful relationship.
DAVID GERGEN: I was struck by one final thing, and that was in the stories that you told, almost all of the people who were giving respect to others and showing respect and building those relationships of equality were either black or they were women.
SARA LAWRENCE LIGHTFOOT: Mm-hmm.
DAVID GERGEN: And I wondered whether you felt that the people who had felt in the past held back for whatever reason, by their gender or by their race, and had learned to overcome that were then in a position to give respect in a different way, in this fresh way that you talk about.
SARA LAWRENCE LIGHTFOOT: Well, I think there is a special kind of sensitivity which comes from a vulnerability to disrespect of others. Now, that can work in two ways. You can be -- you can be dissed so many times that you become embittered, right? You take that in, and you treat others with disrespect. So you come home, you're angry with your wife and you kick your wife, and your wife kicks the child, and the child kicks the dog, that kind of thing. Or it can happen in this other way, which is really displayed I think and described in this book, which is that people experience disrespect, and they transform that. They recognize that was a terrible place to live; I don't want to do that to other people. And they figure out a way really of developing a very different sort of relationship with other people that offers up respect.
DAVID GERGEN: Dr. Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, thank you.
SARA LAWRENCE LIGHTFOOT: Delighted to be here.