Dominic Barter: Respect Means to Look Again


By Julia Steiny

I have hated the word “respect.”  What does it mean?  It grates constantly as it’s overused in political discourse, the media, discipline conversations and among co-workers.  Especially annoying are those posters in school hallways demanding “Respect,” either by itself or along with other abstract nouns like “responsibility.”  Is the mandate only directed at kids?  If so, who teaches what it means and how to do it?

So if the word came up, I would often stop to ask what it meant to the speaker.  Kids say they were “disrespected” to explain why they mouthed off at a teacher, walked out of class or otherwise disrupted.  They were triggered into misbehaving, to be sure, but by what, exactly?  Adults are little better, complaining about lack of respect from students, co-workers, bosses and underlings.  When I ask kids or adults what “respect” means, the first look I get says, “What a stupid question.”  Then the look morphs into mild confusion because they don’t have an answer.  What, I pursue, might respect look like or feel like?  The answer might get me closer to the true nature of the complaint, but not to a definition.

Recently, Dominic Barter solved my problem.  “Respect,” he says, means to look twice. “Re” means that something will happen again or will return.  “Spect” means to see.  “Spectator” and “spectacular” also come from the Latin spectare which means to see, view, watch or behold.

Respect means to look again.

For decades, Barter worked in the shanty towns or favellas of Brazil learning how to ease the violence.  In effect, he engaged many people in a protocol for his own Truth and Reconciliation effort, much like the South African Commission.  First he’d find safe ways to get everyone’s truth on the table, however hideous or enraged.  Then, with everyone having been heard, the group would work on how to live together in peace henceforth.

Barter’s story began with his inability to give up on helping those neighborhoods which were the murder capital of the world.  Others certainly had.  He asked officials and locals what he could do and was told by all that he could do nothing.  People living in the favellas themselves considered the situation hopeless.

So he listened, mainly to the kids hanging around the streets, but also to whomever wanted to talk.  And in this way he figured out his own version of Restorative Justice.  The concepts of Truth and Reconciliation help explain the two-step process of looking.

The first look sees the obvious. 

“When we listen respectfully, we see everything that distinguishes us from the other person.  We see the gender, ethnicity, social class, where you live, how you behave.  We see the crimes, or I tell myself, perhaps, about the crimes you have committed.”

He goes on to say, “But when we listen respectfully, I listen again without denying anything I’ve seen the first time.  But I listen with a question.  Is there also shared humanity?  Is there something that we have in common?  Is there something that connects us?  I’m not defining who you are by what my thoughts tell me.”

So “respect” includes the ability to talk with people who may have done quite horrific things.  More commonly it’s the ability to walk towards the conflict with those who have offended, angered or shamed us, for whatever reason.  And in their presence and in full recognition of what they’ve done, or what we think they’ve done, to ask more questions.  To listen carefully.  To see if there isn’t some commonality that makes it possible to let the conflict be just a conflict, not a fight.  There’s no room in a fight to allow for either truth or reconciliation.

We live in a super-aggressive world, bullied by prejudice, social-media slander and viciousness resulting from easily-taken offense.  Anyone who wants peace needs to look again.  I no longer need to be annoyed by the word “respect” because I know now just to go back to the moment and look again.

Because, as Barter says, “We behave differently according to what we see.”

Julia Steiny
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools. Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant. After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal's weekly education column. Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI Department of Education and the RIDataHUB. For more, see or contact her at The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement in the US and internationally.
Julia Steiny