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So Here's the Thing...

Bill Bilodeau

Find out what it means to me

Stop me if you’ve heard this one:
A man walks into an office … and starts shooting people he barely knows. When police finally disarm and arrest him, he says he did it because he felt disrepected.  Not that anyone in the office said or did anything particular to him, but just, you know, disrespected in general. Two people are dead, three more hospitalized.

How about this one?
A sixth-grader who liked to write poetry was fatally stabbed in the chest and neck during a brawl in Chicago by an 18-year-old woman who said of the girl and her sister, "they disrespected our house."

Or this one?
A motorist in Minneapolis was shot in the head and killed, police said, by another man whom police said felt “disrespected.”

Sensing a theme yet? The list could go on and on, but the items would all have the same unappealing feel.

This is not the same “I want to be remembered so I’ll kill a bunch of innocent people” craziness that led to the recent Virginia Tech shootings, or Columbine, or a host of other massacres. That is, perhaps, a topic for another day.

No, this is all about the bruised ego.

Used to be, the police would narrow the list of motives in a killing to money, sex or power.  In a few short years, it seems, injured pride, real or imagined, has leapt into the top tier.

Remember the scene in “Goodfellas” when Joe Pesci shoots a waiter for not showing him the proper respect, although Pesci had been degrading the young man throughout the scene?

When you saw it, was your reaction:

A) Oh my god, what a crazy fucker he is, shooting someone over a mild insult. Just goes to show how different these criminals are from ordinary people.

Or

B) Damn straight; kid shoulda known you don’t mess with somebody packing heat. He got what he deserved.

If your answer was B, you should NOT be armed at any time.

My reaction was A, as I hope most people’s would be. The scene was there to make the point that gangsters don’t value human life enough to think twice about wasting it. Want money? Go ahead, kill for it. Want a woman? Her husband is dead meat. Pride hurt? Waste the sucker. The only afterthought is where to dispose of the body.

Welcome to 2007, where human lives are as meaningless as the number of dead soldiers in the newspaper or the body count in your favorite video game.

Newspaper people have long had a running gag, of sorts, about the value of dead foreigners. (Newspaper people, you see, have no souls.) It’s a way – somewhat callous, but ultimately, fairly accurate, I’m afraid -- of determining the news value, to readers, of news stories about people dying. It works, roughly, like this: Someone dying in your paper’s coverage area equals about 10 people dying elsewhere in the U.S., equals about 50 people dying in other English-speaking countries, equals about 100 people dying in non-English-speaking countries, equals about 200 people dying in India or China because, well, let’s face it, people always seem to be dying in large numbers in those particular counties: bus crashes, ferries capsizing, mine explosions, typhoons, it never ends.

Along the way, something, be it globalization or the immediacy of the Internet or 9/11, brought the numbers closer together. But not in a good way, necessarily. Now, it seems, people value the death of a neighbor about as much as someone from out of state – it’s interesting to talk about, but it doesn’t really affect their life much.

Perhaps this is because we don’t interact much anymore; in fact, we simply don’t interact as much at all. We’re so busy monitoring our own lives, plugged into iPods and out of reality, buying things online instead of visiting stores, that real, live people have no more meaning to us than the cast of “Lost” or the contestants on “American Idol.” In fact, many people seem to care MORE about the fate of “Idol” contestants than about the person down the street.

In any event, the idea that a human life is something precious, something to be protected, even if it’s not your own, has become anachronistic.

Pair that with a sense of hopelessness (much of it deserved, what with homelessness, many people without insurance, rising costs and stagnant wages, a political system that runs on money and lies, a deteriorating environment, war and terrorism – it’s no wonder people are looking for some outlet for their frustration). For the masses, life pretty much sucks, with too little money, too long work hours, high costs and little recognition. Add to that the trend toward isolation from our neighbors and society and even the decline and fall of the concept of "customer service" -- my God, you can't even pay people to respect you any more! -- and many people's lives are so generally miserable, they're ready to blow

It’s no wonder some people feel their pride is about all they’ve got, and any injury to it is at least worth an insignificant life or twelve.

Let’s try another example, this one from pretty much any time in the past 10 years:

A pro football player negotiating with his team refuses the team’s offer of $X million a year to play a game instead of working for a living; to have six months off each year while making more money than all the teachers in most small-to-medium town school districts combined; while being treated like royalty, looked up to by kids and adults; given preferential treatment everywhere he goes. Even though the team’s offer is many times what he’s already making, he not only turns it down, he feigns insult. “It’s not about the money,” he says. “It’s about respect” -- as measured in dollars.

 

When Aretha Franklin sang about R-E-S-P-E-C-T, everyone knew what she wanted:  her due.

 

I ain't gonna do you wrong while you're gone
Ain't gonna do you wrong  'cause I don't wanna
All I'm askin'
Is for a little respect when you come home

 

Contrast that concept with the lyrics to a more recent song of the same name, this one by Jay-Z:

 

Y’all want to know my style basically
I’m a thorough nigga named B. Bubblin
not that cats you want trouble with
and I demand respect

She asks for respect based on being loyal. He demands it based on being scary.

And that’s where we’ve come to: respect equals fear.

Respect has morphed, in the past decade or so, from something you showed people you looked up to by actions and words, to something you pay for, and now to something more akin to fear.

Or, to look at the flip side, it’s gone from something you earn from those who know you through your actions and words, to something you expect as payment, to something you demand from strangers.  Or else.

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