Americans' quest for respect, and difficulties in giving it haven't changed much since Aretha issued her call
Aretha Franklin recorded hundreds of songs in her lifetime. Her explosive 1967 rendition of Respect became her signature song and remained so, even after her passing Thursday at age 76.
That's significant, and so human. "R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me," she sang.
For most people, respect means a lot. We all long to receive it from others, but struggle to give it, especially to ourselves.
Because listeners so identified Franklin with that song, she was often asked to expound on the importance of respect. Franklin served not only as the "Queen of Soul" but also the spokeswoman for respect. "We all require and want respect, man or woman, black or white," she once said. "It's our basic human right."
Her vocal call for respect hit the top of the Billboard charts at a divisive time in America amid the ongoing Vietnam War and the struggle for civil rights.
R&B legend Otis Redding actually wrote and recorded the original version from a working man's viewpoint, a plea "for a little respect when I come home."
Franklin gave Respect a female twist that transformed Redding's song. She spelled its title with her acrobatic voice, improvising the lines "find out what it means to me" and "take care TCB," an acronym for "takin' care of business." It shook AM transistor radios and resonated with scores of people feeling disrespected, slighted and oppressed. It became an anthem for civil rights and women's equality movements.
If Franklin had released Respect in the 21st century, its message wouldn't be outdated. People still want it, but hesitate to share it. We harbor a mix of Aretha's assertive demand to be held in esteem, and late comedian Rodney Dangerfield's famous lament. "I don't get no respect," he'd tell audiences, nervously adjusting his tie and setting up his next joke.
Most Americans feel disrespected from time to time. Or all the time. A gamut of surveys and research reveal the breadth of our Dangerfield complex. It crosses so many occupations, settings, ages, races and genders that it seems as if nobody gets no respect, to borrow Rodney's comedic grammar.
A 2014 Harris Poll is a prime example. Harris asked 2,250 adults to compare their school-days atmosphere to the present. The responses showed that adults sensed less respect by parents and students for teachers than in years past. But those same adults also perceived less respect by teachers for parents and students.
It doesn't stop there.
A 2014 Harvard Business Review study of 20,000 workers worldwide showed that half of those employees feel disrespected by their superiors. A Gallup poll earlier this year showed that 1 in 4 Americans feel U.S. children are not respected, based on the reaction of adults to student-led marches following a horrific school shooting in February at Parkland, Fla.
Apparently, the cumulative problem is obvious, too, and has been for quite awhile. A 2002 study by the Pew Trust — "Aggravating Circumstances: A Status Report on Rudeness in America" — indicated that 80 percent of respondents said that a lack of respect and courtesy was a significant national problem.
Pew researchers concluded, "Lack of manners in America is not whether you confuse the salad fork for the dinner fork. It is about the daily assault of selfish, inconsiderate behavior that gets under their skin on the highways, in the office, on TV, in stores and the myriad other settings where they encounter fellow Americans." That was 16 years ago. Do things seem any different in 2018? Of course. Social media would need added to that list of settings, exponentially amplifying the disrespect.
What will lead us out of this mess? Too few elected officials on the national level seem willing to set a positive example by extending respect to members of the other political party. Instead of looking to Washington, D.C., or the statehouse, the cause for more respect probably should start in homes.
The University of Illinois Extension offers a plan for families — "Developing a Pattern of Respect." The plan, available on the U of I Extension website calls respect "the core of family relationships." Those families grow and change constantly, and each member needs to realize when they're being respected and when they're giving respect, and give each other permission to fail at times. Some call that grace.
"To develop a pattern of respect in the family, open communication should be present," the university's plan states. "Members should be honest, straightforward and trustworthy with each other. If communication and trust occur between family members on a regular basis, it makes establishing the family rules for respect much easier."
Sounds like the remedy for Americans' cumulative quest for respect boils down to that line Aretha sang a half-century ago — "find out what it means to me."