Women owe men nothing. Men owe women nothing.

Not even respect.

© Dave DuBay

Many of us were taught as children that no one owes us anything. It’s meant to curb any sense of entitlement we may be developing.

From this it follows that we don’t anyone anything. But this assertion is sometimes seen as impudent. And that can lead to a situation where we feel obligated to others while lacking the right to set boundaries.

Epictetus was a former slave turned philosopher. He counsels us to know what belongs to us and what does not belong to us. Other people and other things are not ours. But our deliberate choices do belong to us.

Further, there are two aspects to not touching things that aren’t ours. One is not taking something that belongs to someone else. The other is refusing to accept things that we don’t want.

For example, let’s say you don’t like a choice I’ve made. And let’s say you criticize that choice using judgmental language. My choice doesn’t belong to you, and your judgement doesn’t belong to me. I can neutralize your judgement, not by striking back at you, but simply by pointing out what belongs to whom and making clear that I reject your judgement.

That is, I can refuse to touch something that doesn’t belong to me. And I can drive the point home by noting that your opinion on the matter is irrelevant. It’s irrelevant because your judgement only impacts my choice if I allow it to. If I choose to disregard your judgement then your judgment become moot.

Easier said than done, of course.

And nowhere are these boundaries more problematic than with gender roles. The sexual assault scandal has brought many men’s attitude of entitlement toward women’s bodies into painful focus.

Yes, women can say no. But a culture that supports this is necessary to make it feel like a more viable choice for women. A popular meme along these lines is:

Women don’t owe men anything.

That’s an important message to teach girls and boys from the youngest age. But it’s incomplete unless taught in conjunction with what logically follows:

Men don’t owe women anything.

The basic notion is that not owing or being owed applies regardless of our demographic profile.

There is no equality if something is not given freely.

But don’t we owe each other respect?

No.

Good manners and politeness are one thing. They smooth social interactions and are generally in our self-interest. And if we choose to be impolite then we have no right to complain if our rudeness is reciprocated.

But respect is a about holding someone in high esteem, and no one is entitled to our esteem. Nor can we say that lack of respect is disrespect. Respect and disrespect are two separate issues. That is, not respecting someone is about what’s being withheld (esteem) while disrespecting someone is about what’s being given (contempt).

And just as we don’t owe anyone respect, we don’t owe anyone disrespect. Even if someone is disrespectful toward me I don’t owe them disrespect in return. In other words, I am not entitled to revenge.

Finally, it’s often said that respect must be earned. I disagree.

Why would I want your respect?

If I don’t hold you in esteem then why should your respect be important to me?

Even if I do hold you in esteem why should I think you owe me the same in return?

Why should I jump through hoops to please you and thereby gain your respect? If you want that from me then you’re being manipulative, but your manipulation does not belong to me.

In fact, your respect will never belong to me because you can revoke it at any time, and there’s nothing I can do about it.

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