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Respect Is Poison: A Message To The Class Of 2019

Graphic: Jim Cooke (GMG), Photo: Getty, Shutterstock

I have a story to tell you about being Mad Online. This isn’t really a fitting, celebratory story for you, the graduating class of 2019. You’re currently clad in your caps and your gowns, surrounded by loved ones, forced to endure one final round of grueling lectures from a cadre of respected graduation day speakers, perhaps one of them a real, honest-to-Christ celebrity. But after this proud day—after you walk up there to get your degree, and then hug your headmaster like he’s Roger Goodell on draft day, and then hug your classmates, and then go hog wild at a lunch buffet either on campus or somewhere near it, and then finally cut off your hangover by getting ass-loaded again—you will go back to being aggressively online. In fact, you’re online right now, reading this! You snuck in this moment online when you were on the can! CAUGHT YOU. Now Snap a photo of yourself using the Puppy Filter and pay some goddamn attention.

You’re gonna hear a lot about your future today: a future that is rosy but also potentially rife with obstacles (some of them very much insurmountable) that you, fair graduate, must have the wherewithal to endure. You will be told that you DO have this strength, although I don’t know you, and you could be a complete fucking basket case for all I know. But no matter what kind of future you decide to pursue—maybe you wanna do community work, maybe you wanna go into banking and make a shitload, maybe you wanna start a family, maybe you have no fucking idea what you want because you were one of those kids who couldn’t even decide on a major—you will probably spend more time online during it than you’d like, or at least more than those you care about think is healthy for you.

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And in that time you spend staring down at a phone, or gazing into a laptop screen, what you see and what you read will likely piss you off. It’ll probably come in the guise of an irritating food take, but it’ll bury itself under your skin nonetheless. Then, it’ll stay there. And that is when you’ll have to decide if you want to REACT. I know all about this feeling because I work in the reaction business. It’s my job to react to things, or to react to people reacting to something, or to react to people reacting to my reaction to someone else’s reaction to something. Everyone wants their geode acknowledged. You will hear lazy people dismiss people online as operating in an echo chamber, seeking out opinions in line with their own and building an entire persona around that isolated worldview.

But that’s not quite it. It’s even more useless than that.

The online world is a daisy chain of anger, built on reactions to reactions until the original source of all that flaming is either forgotten, or it turns out to be a blatant Photoshop job of Channing Tatum burning the American flag. The reaction is the main event. You are beckoned to react. You are beckoned to win, because the temptation is to believe that displaying ownage online is a way to win RESPECT.

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That’s an illusion. Present-day America is built on people, the President included, crowing about how not owned they are. It’s a blood-soaked parade of Pyrrhic victors, many of them convinced that their last show of force, be it online or on terra firma, was definitive. Here’s where I come in, because this is a graduation speech, and most grad speakers use your big day exclusively as an occasion to talk about themselves. Here’s me tweeting about demon mayonnaise…

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And here’s me again trying to pull a J.K. Rowling and put a mayo fanboy in his place…

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I definitely showed him, what with my edgy swearin’ and all. Another time, I referred to St. Patrick’s Day as “St. Patty’s Day” on Twitter and a bunch of St. Patrick’s Day purists chastised me for not spelling it “Paddy.” This is a proper correction, and yet I fumed like a maniac. Who fucking cares? Do these losers really care that much about St. Patrick’s Day? I’ll torch their houses to the fucking ground! Did this little hissy fit accomplish anything? Of course not. I was just being an irrational chode craving respect from complete strangers online. I am always dying to react, and carefully attempt to gauge the right level of reaction for that reaction. I’m dead inside.

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I wish I could tell you that these kind of poisonous exchanges are a new phenomenon: the byproduct of astonishing negligence on the part of Twitter and Facebook and other places that make money (or, in Twitter’s case, try to) through endless rancor. I could blame hellsites for everything that’s wrong, but I know that’s misguided. The rise of social media has essentially acted as a mass outsourcing of a longtime human phenomenon: the fruitless pursuit of respect.

Respect is good. Respect is important. Respect is nice on a day like graduation day because after spending four years having teachers drown your work in red ink, and having family members nag you about your grades, and having classmates mock you for a walk of shame or whatever, you finally arrive at THIS day: where everyone turns deferential to you and what you’ve accomplished in your college career. It’s a day of earned respect.

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The problem is that a lot of assholes out there believe they can generate respect less from actively accomplishing anything and more from simply INSISTING that they be respected. We’re talking about guys who know the “It was outta respect” monologue from Goodfellas by heart. This form of arrogance isn’t new. People throughout history have demanded unearned respect and reacted with far more than just angry tweets when they haven’t gotten it. Gambino crime boss Paul “Big Paulie” Castellano once had his daughter’s ex-boyfriend whacked after he “disrespected” him. Such rage persists to this day. Dictatorships are built on small men demanding respect, Kim Jung Un among them…

Faith was born in the People’s Paradise of North Korea in the late 1970s. There her easy life was envied by the rest of the world—or at least that was what she was taught. At home, she and her mother were supposed to polish their household portrait of the smiling Great Leader each day, though they only cleaned it in advance of inspections, since they could be punished if it wasn’t shiny enough.

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Or take this prime Florida Man, who…

…fatally shot his wife in the face during a Wednesday night argument because he didn’t like her “disrespectful” tone, police said.

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Some of you will grads be wise enough to forgo all the horseshit that the internet has to offer and go start a farm in Alberta, or work at a restaurant in Singapore, or commit to some other form of analog lifestyle that you find rewarding. I wish you luck on that. For real. But that doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily be able to escape people who believe the path to respect is blazed by dishing out abuse, nor will you be able to avoid people who champion those very same dipshits and their methods.

This is because demanding respect is a million times easier than earning it. And earning it does not come through threats. It does not come through violence. It does not come through forcing another person on Twitter to make their account private because you burned them with a deftly chosen gif. Like so many other things—confidence, success, even love—respect is the happy byproduct of doing quality work and of being a good and true person. It’s one of those annoyingly elusive things that cannot be purchased nor pilfered. All those fuckheads out there chastening everyone about how Twitter isn’t real life fail to note that real life is equally beset by people unwilling to earn respect the old-fashioned way; people who want respect far more than they want to give it out. And they’re more than willing to use any number of shortcuts to get that respect: cheap boasts, money, tirades, guns, rigging country club golf tourneys in their favor, you name it.

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This is tricky because there needs to be a baseline of respect baked into the model in order for society to operate. You gotta respect pedestrians crossing the street. You gotta respect the waiter serving you your meal. You gotta respect those who love you. Those are all givens. I spend all day trying to ingrain this baseline of respect into my kids. And then, when they sometimes fail to sufficiently have these basic courtesies, I yell at them like a fucking moron. I am loudly demanding they fear my wrath and adjust their behavior accordingly. This is a failure on my part, but there are plenty of people who find screaming at kids and even smacking them to be perfectly appropriate measure to teach those same kids respect.

This is where shit gets bad. Because while the world needs that foundation of respect, there are too many people out there taking liberties with what that foundation should include. You should respect the flag, they demand. You should respect the office of President, no matter who occupies it. You should respect all cops, even when they gun down children. You should respect the TROOPS, at all times. Too many institutions now believe respect should be automatic when it needs to be built. Those same places are often manned by people who believe that they themselves belong within that foundation, and that any failure to respect them merits consequences.

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This is how respect becomes poison. Again, no matter what avenue you choose to pursue after this—even if you just wanna bartend for a few years—chances are you’re gonna have an instinctive desire to succeed in that avenue. Garnering respect is part of that success: realizing that your peers admire and appreciate how you do what you do. That’s all healthy and good. It’s when you lust for respect BEYOND that—and when you want it now now now—that you become a piece of shit. In the hands of evildoers, respect is just a loose synonym for power.

I know it sounds neat to be powerful and to crush your enemies and watch them flee before you, etc. But honestly, if you’re more desirous for power than wary of it, you already suck. Please don’t be that species of fucker. Don’t be some guy who thinks that anything less than a show of complete fealty is a sign of disrespect, because I’ll already know you’re an accomplice to our doom. Fuck off. And don’t be scared of being vulnerable. If you think you’ll lose respect because you dared to show weakness, again: fuck off. And if someone disrespects you, you don’t have them disemboweled. You just ignore them. Silence is always the best insult.

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There is no shortcut to earning great respect. You don’t just get that shit by showing up and puffing your chest. Respect is not power, nor is it fear. It’s a far more delicate thing that requires time and care and credibility. And when you get it, you don’t get a crown in recognition of it. Your graduation is a rare life event where respect is formally conferred. After that, you’re in for a long-ass grind where respect comes gradually, quietly, painfully… and you have to learn that it’s a way more valuable form of respect that whatever a bunch of capital-I Important fuckheads are chasing after. That kind of respect is fool’s gold. It’ll poison your mind and compel you to make other people’s lives miserable. I know because I’ve tried to get a taste of it. You can see the results of those efforts above. Chase money, chase sex, chase fame, chase good weed. Chase it all. But don’t go chasing after respect when it’s more than willing to come to you if you prove worthy.

And use your turn signal.

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About the author

Drew Magary

Drew Magary is a Deadspin columnist and columnist for GEN magazine. You can buy Drew's second novel, The Hike, through here.