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In all languages, words are alive; they are constantly evolving; they change their spelling; they change their meaning; their concepts become stale; their ideas are diverted, and sometimes enriched; this evolution is never innocent and it says a lot about the evolution of these societies. This evolution is never innocent and says a lot about the evolution of these societies. Therefore, following the genealogy of words is a very useful science for understanding civilisations.
Thus, a very important word, in all languages: “respect”. It comes from the Latin “respicere” (“to look back”), initially referring to the idea of keeping a promise, applying a contract, following the rules of a game. It refers to the feeling of giving consideration to others for the value they have because of their personal qualities or their social status (which are two forms of respect that Blaise Pascal distinguished by nicely naming them “natural respects” and “institutional respects”). More generally, the word “respect” has come to designate civility, politeness and courtesy. New meanings have appeared, depending on the evolution of societies. Thus, we speak of the respect due to women. And to all those who have been oppressed by patriarchal societies. And even more widely, human rights or animal rights.
This primary meaning is forgotten by many people today, who live in the moment and neglect what, like respect, refers to duration, both in the past and in the future.
In increasingly narcissistic societies, it now also refers to the protection of certain more personal rights: for example, we speak of respect for private life, thus designating the self-respect that is demanded of others.
It is also used in an even more immediate sense. Thus, the young people of the neighbourhoods, who so often, and so well, make the French language evolve, used it as an exclamation meaning a compliment, or admiration.
But we too often forget that anyone who does not respect himself cannot respect others. In fact, everything starts with self-respect. Physical respect first: cleanliness, appearance, fitness, health. Going to the gym, eating healthily, dressing properly, and, more generally, developing one’s own skills, striving to improve oneself, making the best use of one’s time, refusing to lie to oneself, are essential marks of self-respect. However, too many people have neither the means nor the desire to respect themselves, to carry themselves further, to make the best use of the only treasure that is really in their hands, i.e. their life. They let themselves go, resigned, sometimes accusing others of their own weaknesses, sometimes going as far as self-hatred. Sometimes they really don’t have the means to do better and it is up to society to provide them with the means. Sometimes it is out of sheer personal negligence.
This is also true for a family, a company, a city, a state: An organisation that does not respect itself is condemned to death. A family that does not respect itself, that does not live cleanly and to the highest standards, according to its means, is condemned to explode In the case of a company, some details can be tragically revealing. (I remember a friend, a genius company director, Antoine Riboud, who told me that he never finalised the purchase of a company without visiting the toilets to see if they were well kept!)
Moreover, the self-respect of a family, a company, a city, a nation, is not reduced to what those who run it can decide. It depends on what each member of that entity does to respect it. In the case of a school, mutual respect between students and teachers is necessary. In the case of a city, for example, cleanliness does not only depend on what the municipal road services do, but also on what each person does to avoid randomly throwing away packaging from what they consume, old furniture or other objects; and even to collect what they find, to organise themselves into neighbourhood associations to do so and to report these abuses to the competent services.
In these pre-electoral times, we must not forget that without self-respect, without respect for the rights of others, no life in society is possible. And that the well-being of a country begins with the respect of each of its inhabitants for themselves, for their children (whose future requires that we protect the world in which they will live), for all the others, whatever their origins, their genders and their social conditions, for their cities, for their environment, for their landscapes, for their cultural heritage.