Self-Respect Is Our Society's Lost Treasure

Self-Respect Is Our Society's Lost Treasure
"One who makes himself a worm, cannot complain if people step on him "

Time had become my greatest gift, a luxury I never thought possible. I embraced it with open arms, eager to finally fulfill my lifelong dream of reading the classics. With newfound freedom, I took to meeting people from different strata in the society, trying to understand their unique perspectives on various aspects of life. For a while, I felt content and privileged in this newfound knowledge. But as my readings and conversations unfolded and new ideas began to flood in, something felt amiss; my inner joy slowly withered away as understanding dawned upon me that I knew nothing - the reading was not overcoming my longing for knowledge, but unsettling me instead. My worldview was transforming - no longer could I look at cultures and societies with an ignorant eye; instead, they were now viewed through an analytical lens that left me feeling anxious yet fulfilling at the same time.

Time also afforded me the opportunity to watch local television where I encountered TV programs where motorcycles, gold coins, household items and even cars are a prize for the winners. The thrill of watching the competition was exhilarating, but there was a dark side to it; one that often left me feeling humiliated. Every time I watched such shows, I could not help but notice the stark contrast between the contestants' behavior, body language and avidity for more and more, especially when the host, along with his helpers, distribute gift packs among the participants for free. Every time I saw this show, I felt ashamed, yet failed to process this behavior. I was stuck, contemplating to find the right term to describe this attitude but finally, my literary friend came to my rescue with the perfect term: “izzat-e-nafs,” or self-respect.

Self-respect is a term oft used in our society, but is understood very little. It refers to the positive feelings and beliefs that an individual has about themselves. It involves recognizing one's own worth, dignity, and integrity, and holding oneself in high regard. Philosophers have long pondered the ethical implications of self-respect.

What does it mean to truly respect oneself? How should one go about honoring their own worth and dignity? Such questions have been asked time and time again, as we seek to understand what it means to lead a moral life. Aristotle, in Nicomachean Ethics, is of the opinion that an essential component of a person to be virtuous was a realization of their true worth. While drawing a contrast between the virtuous and a vain person, he pointed out the main difference i.e., “self-knowing,” which is not just a good opinion about oneself, but a more meaningful self-awareness.

Emmanuel Kant was the first to recognize the importance of self-respect in moral philosophy. He argued that respect for oneself should be the highest good, and that it should form the basis for all moral decisions. Kant's philosophy of self-respect has since become an important part of moral thought in the western world. Kant, introduced a different perspective to self-respect where he believed that irrespective of their character, it is the right of every individual to be respected; he said “Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.”

Self-respect in Kantian philosophy therefore, entails respect for oneself and respect for others alike. One’s self-respect hinges on a responsibility to act in accordance with one's status as a moral being. Kant beautifully explained the difference between self-esteem and self-respect. Self-esteem can be easily hurt with failures, and a person with low self-esteem can be a drag on society, on the contrary, in times of despair and dejection, it is self-respect that not only rescues the individual, but also society. Therefore, for Kant, self-respect is also the cornerstone of a strong society, as it is self-respect that forces an individual, even in times of despair, dejection, and repeated failures, to be rational and still strive in view of their moral standards.

Aristotelian and Kantian discourse jolted me and I ended up recalling my childhood memories of higher pedestal TV programmes like “Kasoti” and “Neelam Ghar.” It horrified me to see how far we have deteriorated as a society in terms of morals and values, and I felt a deep sense of disappointment and sadness, where these values have been replaced with a very different set of beliefs. We have become more selfish, and more materialistic with a big question mark on our self-respect, which has become a thing of the past. Watching “Kasoti” and “Neelam Ghar” was a treat where the take-home message was immense knowledge, education and most important, a desire for quest of more knowledge. Those programs also had a subtle message for a better and developed society and higher societal norms. Those programs were based on concept of self-respect, where competence was tested, where the deserving were awarded, where there was no begging for reward, and where the unsuccessful carried themselves with grace and dignity. There was grace and elegance in loosing also.

Watching these recent TV programs used to be a constant source of agony for me, as I observed a gradual decline in values in our society. However, a recent event has finally spurred me to pick up courage to pen down my feelings.

My Jumma prayers were disturbed, when last week, a wealthy person parked his car in the no parking zone adjacent to the mosque and while the security guard was requesting him not to do so, this person gave a 100 rupee note to what must have his 7 or 8 year old child to give it to the security guard in uniform. The security guard politely declined the offer from the child, saying that it was not required, but the father insisted saying that this has nothing to do with the parking and that he should accept it. I was filled with pain, agony, and confusion as I passed by them, wondering how this could be stopped. My mind was in a state of flux between a possible confrontation, as well as missing the Jumma congregation. Being disturbed, agitated, restless and cursing myself for not taking action, guilt overpowered me for not fulfilling my social obligation, but alas the moment was lost, I had missed the bus.

In fact, an imaginary philosophical conversation with that person started within me. That action had serious ramifications for his child, the security person, and our society. For the child who was of an impressionable age, it would be difficult to decipher that the act had nothing to do with the wrong parking. For his entire life, the child will carry the impression that one can violate the law and get away with a bribe. For the guard, it was the humiliation that damaged his self-respect, and for the father, it was a sign of his insensitivity towards respecting others and the law. The father reflected our society today: high self-esteem, but no self-respect. He was insensitive towards his child and his character building and personality development, he was insensitive towards the feelings of the uniformed guard, he demonstrated how he viewed the guard as being worthless in society.

My worthy readers, look around and you will see a constant increase in professional and habitual beggars on the streets in our beloved country. I am aware of the counterargument of the poor economic situation confronting us, but are we alone in this economic predicament? No matter where you go in the world, there are always people struggling to make ends meet. One can find those who have very little, and yet still manage to make something of themselves. They will be seen demonstrating their abilities and skills as a way to make a living, but seldom ask for help directly. From street performers singing for spare change to homeless individuals with a placard for assistance - these people display self-respect despite extreme odds.

This desensitization should be a cause of concern for all of us, as to where we are heading as a society. Where is Iqbal’s most quoted dictum “tu jhuka jab ghair ke agay, na mann tera na tann.” Is this great saying of Iqbal only for debate and declamation contests in schools and universities?

Should this quote from the great philosopher have some impact on our lives also? The quote emphasizes the importance of maintaining one's dignity and self-respect, even when faced with difficult circumstances or challenging situations. Self-respect or “izzat-e-nafs” is a treasure that has been lost somewhere in the stampede of the materialistic world. Today, even people living reasonably well are seen at philanthropic distributions free food, reasonably respected office position holders are seen asking for financial assistance. The degree by which we have compromised on our self-respect is unimaginable and should not only be seen or equated with financial support or assistance. When this important ingredient is lost, the effects can be seen in the highest levels of society. We will see the well-off, those in positions of power and influence, openly asking for help to advance their careers. Despite their toil and sweat, these individuals feel a lack of self-worth that renders them vulnerable and prone to conceding. Their achievements have not been enough to fill the void of self-respect that they lack.

The cultivation of ethical and moral values within our society is of paramount importance. To undo what has been done, we need to invest in our youth. As a damage control mechanism, we need to go back to the basics and reevaluate the mosaic of moral education, simultaneously exemplifying ethical behavior. Many parents and school administrations are confused in their understanding of the concept of self-respect and self-esteem, and focus on self-esteem where their children should feel good about themselves, not realizing that they are promoting self-centeredness and narcissism.

Teaching self-control to our young generation with delayed gratification, instead of instant reward or praise, is an important part of their development. Our youth must be trained to deal with frustration and stress. Society cannot sustain itself purely on self-esteem, without self-respect.

The entire gamut of our adult population and specially the teaching faculty and parents must realize the importance and implications of self-respect. A society that has lost its self-respect has actually lost itself.