Most of you must be familiar with the name of Ranu Mondal, a singing sensation who became the Internet’s darling after being spotted by chance on a railway platform. One of those stories that makes you feel good about social media, although I am not sure for how long, because social media giveth and social media taketh away is what I have seen. Anyway, a few days after her initial video went viral, a team of stylists visited her and gave her a complete, albeit a tad bit overdone, makeover. Simply a sweet gesture and the lady looked happy. I saw that picture of hers shared by a Keralite and people who knew her story had posted positive comments under it. (This was before she started getting trolled for her behaviour with fans.) But one lady, who was apparently not familiar with her story, had written a comment under it – “Etha ee pennumpilla?”

For the non-Malayalis, “pennumpilla” is a word that is used in two ways – 1) a casual, harmless slang for “wife” 2) a rather disrespectful way to address any woman. In simple words, “Etha ee pennumpilla?” means “Who is this hag?” People with basic common sense could understand that the lady who commented this was obviously trying to poke fun at the singer’s appearance, especially her make-up that stood out a little. A number of sensible people posted replies to her saying that her comment was rather cheap. I am assuming that she looked up who the lady in the picture was and realized that it was an inappropriate comment. But she chose not to apologize or simply delete the comment and instead went on to lash out at those who had replied to her. With all the arrogance of a typical snob, she kept saying that she is a Malayalam teacher with years of experience and that there was nothing wrong with the word she had chosen to use. She added that ignorant people who didn’t know the regional variations in language were simply making a big deal out of nothing. I checked personally with various people from Trivandrum, where she claims “pennumpilla” is a respectful way of addressing a woman, and they all said the same thing – used in the context of the comment, it is just a nasty way of talking about someone.

Two long paragraphs into this blog, I will now come to the relevance of this incident and the core theme of the blog. The know-it-all, unapologetic lady in question kept repeating how she is a teacher and how that makes her superior to everyone questioning her. The one who posted the picture, probably an acquaintance of hers, also kept telling the others that she is much elder to them and a teacher too and should be respected for those reasons. I read through all the replies to her comments and saw that no one had said anything even remotely abusive. All they had done was point out that she was wrong in what she said. But that was looked at as an act of disrespect only because of her age and her profession, and despite her comment and inflated ego that wouldn’t even let her admit her mistake, she demands respect. Which brings us to the point – our society’s flawed teachings on who deserves respect.

From childhood we are bombarded with directives – respect your elders, respect your teachers, respect your man, respect successful public figures, respect the dead, respect, respect, respect… I have never seen an unconditional teaching on respect – Respect everyone, irrespective of age, gender, profession, relation. Naturally, some people gain respect by default, whether they deserve it or not and some don’t. Even if we were to preach “Respect everyone”, that would still be unfair given that we do not live in an ideal world. While good and bad are subjective and there would always be a grey area, the simple truth is that not everyone deserves respect. It does not necessarily mean that we abuse everyone we feel are not worthy of respect. It only means that we have to stop glorifying people only because they fit into our society’s mould of “respectable” people.

There are so many elders – relatives and otherwise – about whom I have felt “Ugh! They have a disgusting mindset.” Elders who flaunt their “elder” status and think they can get away with saying and doing anything, insulting anyone. While some part of it could be ignored, some of it needs a reply. Sometimes saying “Please do not talk to me like that” is absolutely essential. It is stern, yet not offensive. And even if it is not about you, sometimes it is essential to say “I do not wish to listen to this anymore. Bye!” But anyone who dares to say that (and only that!) is branded a disrespectful, arrogant youngster who doesn’t value our tradition of respecting elders. From a young age we are taught to keep our mouths shut no matter what an elder does or says. Sadly, that is one reason our kids do not know how to react when an elder person touches them inappropriately.

The same way, respecting people only for their professions is absurd. There are teachers, doctors, soldiers and those from just about any profession who do a wonderful job and are wonderful human beings. But there are also many who are despicable human beings in the very same professions – teachers who brutally torture students, doctors who squeeze the last penny out of patients, soldiers who rape women. Why should anyone give the same kind of respect to all of them?

Artists, in this regard, stand a step higher on the pedestal of respect we have created. When Yesudas, one of the best singers India has seen and whose voice has been part of our lives for almost 5 decades, made some cheap and sexist comments, I saw tonnes and tonnes of people defending him with “Dasettan is the God who has gifted us with heavenly music. Learn to respect him.” And I was thinking what the hell his amazing talent has got to do with his narrowminded rambling that ought to be criticized. Or let’s talk about the kind of hero worship that the ‘most loved King of Pope’, Michael Jackson enjoys even today despite his sickening chronicles as a paedophile. In fact, a huge number of ‘most loved’ artists of all times who are hailed as the most amazing people have had personalities so shitty that you can’t help but wonder if being a super-talented celebrity is all that is required to exonerate someone from even the most horrific of crimes.

And don’t even get me started on the whole “Respecting the dead” sermon. Sure, let’s not keep cursing a dead guy who can’t curse back or unnecessarily bring his name up, now that he is dead. But let’s also not make evil people sound like saints only because they are dead. Like the kind of flattering adjectives you see heaped on dead politicians whose life’s aim had only been looting people. By that standards, history should have been kinder to Hitler because he is dead too. If a person was a certified asshole when he was alive, death doesn’t and shouldn’t change that.

People do not realize that showering undue respect on those who do not deserve it is just another way of endorsing the evils and vices they display. It is time we change the ‘curriculum’ for our sessions on respect and teach the next generation that respect is earned, it is not an entitlement. While it is important to show basic courtesy and decency to everyone – elder or younger, superior or subordinate in stature and status, man, woman and everyone in between – it is also important to know that silence is not a synonym of respect. Let us teach our kids the art of finding the balance between being nice and being right when it is needed.