from the Secretary General


by Msgr. Robert L. Stern

Respect vt. [from the Latin respectus, past participle of respicere, to look at, look back on, respect] 1. a) to feel or show honor or esteem for; hold in high regard. b) to consider or treat with deference or dutiful regard. 2. to show consideration for; avoid intruding upon or interfering with. 3. to concern; relate to.

As a young priest, I spent two summers on the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico, learning conversational Spanish and Puerto Rican and Hispanic culture. Weekends, I would help out in various parishes on the island, including the hearing of confessions.

At home, in New York, I was used to children confessing, for example, that “I disobeyed my mother ten times. I disobeyed my father five times. I disobeyed my teacher three times.”

However, in Puerto Rico the children — in Spanish of course — often confessed, “I didn’t respect my mother ten times. I didn’t respect my father five times. I didn’t respect my teacher three times.”

What a difference! In Puerto Rican culture, respect is a basic and important value — and the lack of respect or, worse, disrespect is a serious offense.

Respect is a value throughout the entire Hispanic and Latin worlds. Not surprisingly, in view of the long Moorish presence in Spain that helped mold that country’s culture, it is an equally important value throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds.

Even American rap music offered a backhanded endorsement of the value when it popularized the slang term “dis.”

Upon careful analysis, there is a theological basis for respect. It is rooted in the innate dignity of every human person as a creature made in the image and likeness of God and endowed with certain inalienable rights.

That is why to seriously disrespect another person can even be a sin.

For a large percentage of the human race, respect is such an important value that often death is preferable to dishonor. Shame can be unendurable, whether the shame falls upon an individual person or upon his or her family, clan, tribe, caste, nation or culture.

In many languages, before addressing another person, one has to be aware of the degree of respect that is due — for, unlike in modern English, the speaker has to choose from more than one form for “you.”

Long-lasting feuds have been triggered by disrespectful words. Wars have started over real or perceived insults. The demands of honor often lead to death and destruction.

According to the nursery rhyme, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” Maybe they should not, but, as a matter of fact, they often do.

An important part of the art of diplomacy is skill in choosing the words that are spoken and the deportment that is displayed.

Every culture has its norms of politeness and its unwritten rules governing social interactions and personal behavior. A stranger who does not know and understand them can never effectively communicate, even if he speaks the language well.

It is not hypocrisy to be concerned about things like “saving face” or “bella figura.” Although they can be exaggerated, they stem from respect for the other’s dignity.

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Tags: Cultural Identity Muslim Arabs