The Madness of 'Equality of Respect'

I generally find Mickey Kaus to be a keen observer especially of politics, so I am somewhat alarmed to find that this post he endorsed so fondly strikes me as the biggest crock of nonsense I have read in quite some time. It begins with a preposterous misreading of a set of observed facts.
I had this realization (as with so many others) while living in Japan. I first noticed it when I was sitting in a "kaiten-zushi" restaurant, watching some cooks chop fish. It was robotic, repetitive work, about as difficult - and about as well-paid - as flipping burgers. But my Japanese friend referred to one of those cooks as "sushi-ya-san", meaning "Mr. Sushi Chef". She used the honorific reflexively, not patronizingly or sarcastically. The respect for this low-paid, low-skilled worker was reflexive, automatic. I suddenly wondered if we could get Americans to start calling burger-flippers "sir". The thought made me laugh.

There are other ways in which the customs of Japanese society work to encourage equal respect.
"Equal respect" in Japanese society? This is the culture which has codes governing the right way for social unequals to bow to one another that are so rigorous and tightly defined that schools of international business etiquette often don't even try to teach them. The proper calibration of status is reflected in depth and duration of one's bow to the other. It is the most rigidly formal stratification of any culture I have ever encountered.

The advice you will get as an outsider is to try to bow 'equal depth, equal duration' when meeting your Japanese business contact. This will generally be accepted, but it is not in any way a gesture of equality of respect. Rather, they accept it as a kind of recognition that gaijin are simply incapable of behaving in a fully civilized manner. From them, the acceptance is intended as a magnanimous offer of charity; from you, the bow is intended as a kind of supplication, a widow's mite of courtesy that, while in no sense adequate, is the best you can do given your unfortunate circumstances.

The reason Japanese society refers to the sushi chef with an honorific is because he accepts his place. In return for knowing his place, he is not treated with open disrespect -- what would be the point of that? You need not enforce submission on someone who accepts it and demonstrates his acceptance openly.

"No one discusses how much money anyone makes," he goes on to say. "Displays of wealth are a major taboo[.]" But observe their reactions upon trading business cards.

By these things I do not mean to criticize Japanese society, which has its own beauty and despair. I mean to say that the initial observation is so flawed that one ought not to try to draw any lessons from it.

What sense does it make to talk of 'equality' of respect in any case? Is it equal like you have equal rights under the law? The reason you can talk about human equality in that sense -- it is the only way in which it is possible to talk about humans as equals and avoid speaking nonsense -- is that there is a single source for the rights you have under the law, which creates those rights the same way for every entity. Respect is not like that. Respect is not the creation of a single source, but is created (or not) by each individual you encounter. Some will elect to respect you more than others. You don't even get equal respect with yourself: how much respect you get depends on whom you ask. (Free advice: ask your dog.)

Is it equal like a measure of sugar or cracked red wheat? If so, it should be fungible. If I haven't any of my own today I can substitute a cup from my neighbor, and when I later replace it her situation will be no different than before the exchange. Can I then substitute the respect I have for you for the respect I have for my mother?

Of course not, and the example is intended to begin showing why. Respect follows from relationships. The respect you owe your mother is not merely unequal to the respect you owe someone else, it is categorically different from the respect you owe someone else -- your wife, your first sergeant, an older gentleman, a polite stranger. It is nonsense to speak of respect in terms of equalities.

But let's say we get the category correct, because we hold the relationship stable. Let's talk more about your first sergeant. Most likely over the course of time you'd have more than one. They share the same relationship with you (assuming you don't change ranks or positions yourself, which for this example we will assume). Now, within that category, do you owe them equal respect?

Of course not again. One of them may be a great NCO, who looks after his unit, puts his soldiers before himself, and helps make sure that you achieve your mission. He is devoted to making sure you get home in one piece, prepared to go on to greater things. The other one may be a lousy loudmouth who throws his people under the bus for personal ease or advancement.

If we hold the relationship stable, then, we can talk about respect in terms of more and less. Equality of respect becomes possible if and only if we have a stable relationship. But equality is not at all someone's due. Respect is earned.

We may rightly say that Americans don't evaluate respect correctly, which causes them to fail to respect people who have a genuine claim -- the hard worker at a poor-paying job who is pulling his own weight, for example. There's a relationship there that is not being treated with the respect it is due.

But drop the nonsense about equality, let alone 'redistribution' of respect. Equality of respect is a bad concept.


Eric Blair said...

I actually think Sushi chefs are decently paid in Japan, where cooks are, for the most part, better paid and the entire profession of, well, I guess you could call it 'short order cooks' is more respected in general. (Mostly becuase I think Japanese eat out more than Americans do). The comparison of a sushi chef to a McDonald's burger flipper, or indeed, any American fast food franchise, is just wrong from the start. They are two different things. I have not found Kaus to be that bright, so it doesn't surprise me that he makes the mistake.

But there is an old adage about 'watch how people treat the servants' to see what their attitudes really are, and I'm afraid his article doesn't say anything good about Mr. Kaus.

Anonymous said...

"Preposterous misreading" places it mildly.

Americans get laughed at world-wide because they treat servants (waiters, maids, and other workers) as equals.

Noah Smith's mischaracterization of Sushi chefs as
"low-paid, low-skilled" workers the equivalent of a "burger-flipper" is also amazing. Those precise, swift, chopping motions are considered an artistic expression. His utter failure to appreciate the status of a Sushi chef after supposedly living in Japan demonstrates a very low intellectual capacity.

The rest of the article confirms this impression, due to its sweeping statements misusing a variety of political buzzwords.

Perhaps this communist is suffering from cognitive dissonance.


Anonymous said...

I call everyone "sir" or "ma'am" because it's what you do. They are human beings and deserve a modicum of respect for that. Doesn't matter if they are flipping burgers or the minister of my place of worship. But some people have earned more respect, and I show it through more than just "sir."


Cass said...

The author appears to have confused respect with courtesy.

Tom said...

Kaiten zushi is fast food sushi; I'm pretty sure the employees there are not chefs.

Also, 'sushi-ya san' is not 'Mr. Sushi Chef.' The 'ya' means shop; it's more accurately translated as something like 'Mr. Sushi shop worker.'

Making too much of the honorific 'san' is a common error; it's just being polite in most cases.

Tom said...

Um: the country's relatively high inequality is only a couple of decades old

That's just embarrassing. The man has no idea of Japan before 1945, when a small number of families controlled most of the land and wealth in the nation.

Cass said...

I have one word for the author: eta.

Ymar Sakar said...

Sushi places that are inherited, not just bought for money and some high school person paid to run it, are considered part of Japan's food culture. As such, they share the same social respect given to old koryu martial arts dojos that are passed through the family line, unbroken for centuries.

But it is very difficult for a foreigner or someone who cannot think in Japanese, to comprehend what -san even implies in a situation contextually.

What your translator and your google program on your Iphone tells you, isn't going to be the full truth.

A McDonalds fast food or family restaurant type franchise has etiquette that a 5 star restaurant in the US might envy. So it is difficult to find a fast food US equivalent in Japan. Maid cafes or internet cafes perhaps?

This is the culture which has codes governing the right way for social unequals to bow to one another that are so rigorous and tightly defined that schools of international business etiquette often don't even try to teach them.

It's not that difficult for people that think in Japanese. But tourists like Obama are more likely to offend and make fun of people, when they try modifying bows and social gestures in Japan.

The concept of sarcasm is not foreign to the Japanese. If a person bows lower than is required to an equal or inferior, this can easily be communicated as an insult. The same way as using the title "Mr. Executive" to your associate, while telling him to go out and get your coffee communicates.

Things make perfect sense once a person thinks in Japanese. The language is probably required for that.

-San suffix is a commonly used way to tell everyone around them, that you are behaving in a professional and non-intimate way with a person. Westerners see a personal relationship and greeting as something that relates to the people involved. The Japanese see greetings and formal methods as a way to determine a relationship AND a way to tell everyone else around them that such a relationship exists.

So they would literally take the suffix of "sir" to mean that you are addressing a member of the knighthood.

Depending on the suffix and prefix used, people can greet each other and everyone else around them would know the approximate nature of that relationship by the context. Lovers. Professional boss-employee. Associates. Equals or peers. Elder and the junior. Master and apprentice. Child and parent. Child and parent in law. Brothers. Sisters. Old brothers with younger sisters. Younger brothers with older sisters.

Just by what people say to each other and the method they use to change the phrasing, it is easy to detect what the approximate relationship is.

However this requires the ability to think outside one's cultural sandbox. Which is not something zombies of the Left or the intellectual class in the uS, is allowed to do any more.