Who Do You Love?

6 07 2011

“We all sometimes mistake popularity with respect.”     

       Ricky Gervais, about his character David Brent on The Office

This quote has been rattling around in my head for a while, now, but especially as I visit Washington, DC, for the 4th of July. How fast and how far we have let this this dangerously simplistic – and wrong – measuring stick of a person’s worth grow and strengthen.

There are many obvious differences between popularity and respect; here’s how I see it:

Popularity requires external validation; others make someone popular.

Respect comes from within; you don’t need anyone to give you self-respect.

A single aspect of a person can make him popular.

The whole of a person is what makes him respectable.

Popularity is ephemeral; it rises and falls with the fashion of the times.

Respect is bedrock; it is based on principles of fairness, kindness, and courage old as time.

I dare you to think back (and if you are as old as me, you will have plenty of situations to consider) about things you’ve done in your past that made you feel popular – your “big man on campus” moments – and see how you feel about them now.  I promise you, I did not feel good, remembering some of those.  Popularity is comparative – you are more popular than Jane, less popular than Dan. It is a zero-sum game, so there have to be losers for there to be winners.

Now, think of the times you took the high road, made the kind gesture, did the right thing – even if it was hard to do – even if your “friends” disagreed at the time.  I will bet you will still be glad you made those decisions.

As we watch the post parade for the 2012 run for the White House, I fear that our national infatuation with celebrity – popularity on steroids – might play too strong a role in our choices for our own good.  As long as we consider the substance as well as the form of our candidates, we will be able to make good and responsible decisions at the polls  .  .  .  and we can respect ourselves in the morning.

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