Thursday, April 9, 2009

132. Respect is earned, not ordered

There was a lot of media attention last week concerning President Obama's trip to England and his meeting with Queen Elizabeth. Michelle Obama also made the trip, and, likewise, was introduced to the queen.

The meeting was drenched in tradition and etiquette. And there was some controversy about whether Michelle Obama inappropriately touched the queen, or whether the iPod was an appropriate gift (the Queen, by the way, gave President Obama a picture of fitting!)

She is the Queen of England (she is also the Head of the Commonwealth, Supreme Governor of the Church of England, Duke of Normandy, Lord of Mann, and Paramount Chief of Fiji, according to Wikipedia)-and there are rules as to what you can say, how you are supposed to act and a list of those things that you cannot do.

According to various sources, some of the rules include:

Do not attempt to touch the queen. Wait for the queen to extend her hand.

Do not bow or curtsy (this would be the rule if the subjects meeting the queen were British).

First greet the queen as "her majesty," then as "ma'am."

Do not turn your back to the Queen.

I think a show of respect is a courtesy that should be extended to all human beings, regardless of your age, sex, race, socioeconomic status, religious preference or last name. It is something that we as Americans probably do not do well-we often rush to judgment, declaring our own interest superior to others.

However, the idea that queens and kings still exists, let alone that they are still privileged to special treatment and etiquette, is outdated and preposterous. A quick historic review of monarchies offers the reminiscences of war, revolution, power and greed. Is that not in part what Americans fought against, the idea that people should not be controlled by royal dynasties-unaccomplished kings and queens, declared such simply because they were delivered from the noble womb.

Think about those people you have respect for. Are they those people that have worked hard-gone to school, worked two and three jobs, endured both success and failure, and who not always act in their self-interest, or is it someone born into privilege, deserving of admiration simply because of their family name?

In this specific case, who do you think deserves more respect-an African-American, born to a middle class family who works himself through law school and the American political system, or the current queen, who was born into privilege, and unexpectedly became the queen only because her uncle, Prince Edward, Prince of Whales, never had children?

Let's be serious, if there is a matter of respect to be shown, it should be the queen offering it to President Obama.

I realize and understand that there could be a book-length discussion on the queen herself, her responsibilities and that, in many respects, it is the tradition of the royal family that lives on. But the point is still the same-who cares? We make it important simply by adhering to archaic political and historical systems. That time has passed; it is time to earn respect.

As to how respect is earned, it is different for everyone. Some people are respected for becoming the best at what they do, for being elected to political positions or becoming highly educated. Others are respected for the amount of money they have, their athletic ability or their artistic talent. Finally, others are respected for simply working hard at whatever they do, providing for their families and making sacrifices for others-such as donating time and money to worthy causes.

I probably respect all of these people, and it is not that I am necessarily out to disrespect the queen. However, I think it is time to reevaluate, as a species, those traditions that are built on nothing else more than tradition itself. There needs to be a reason-a qualitative or quantifiable reason that is more than "She's the Queen!"

When it comes to matters of tradition, the question should always be, "what happens if..." In this case what happens if President Obama reaches for her hand first, calls her something other than "her majesty," or if Michelle Obama wore a sleeveless dress? Who is harmed? Who has suffered?

Most importantly, if it was done without the specific intent to be disrespectful, how silly it is that anyone would care-when there are more important things in this world to worry about.

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