The Meaning Of Respect

In the sport of swimming there are many more important things to talk about than the organisation’s membership form. However there is an aspect of the 2017 membership form that I find interesting enough to discuss. This is what the form says:

“Members agree that they shall:


Abide by and respect the regulations governing sport, the organisations and individuals administering those regulations  

Respect the efforts of the appointed and elected representatives of the Association and Swimming’s governing organizations.”

Of course I have no problem with the idea of abiding by and respecting the regulations governing the sport. But when respect for the law merges into a demand for personal loyalty to the individuals appointed or elected to the governing organization, I begin to feel uncomfortable. I have always considered loyalty and respect to be qualities that good people earn. I doubt Colin Meads or Edmond Hillary or Arthur Lydiard ever had to get their teams to sign contracts of respect. Their actions earned the respect of those they led.

The very presence of these provisions in the membership contract is a sign of weakness and insecurity. But of interest to me is – are there any limits to what is being asked for here? We are simply told we have to respect all these people. But what does respect mean and is the respect required or appropriate irrespective of the behaviour of the people involved.

For example is the demand for respect affected by the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990. This Act guarantees the right to freedom of thought, conscience, including the right to adopt and hold opinions without interference and the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form. I am no lawyer but it seems like Swimming New Zealand’s demand for unconditional respect may be at odds with the law of the land. For example respect cannot be subservient to the right to freedom of expression.      

I understand case law may also hold problems for the Swimming New Zealand membership form. In 2003, Paul Hopkinson, a Wellington schoolteacher, burned the Flag of New Zealand as part of a protest in Parliament grounds. Hopkinson was initially convicted under Flags, Emblems, and Names Protection Act 1981 of destroying a New Zealand flag with intent to dishonour it, but appealed against his conviction. On appeal, his conviction was overturned on the grounds that the law had to be read consistently with the right to freedom of expression under the Bill of Rights. This meant that his actions were not unlawful because the word dishonour in the Flags, Emblems and Names Protection Act had many shades of meaning, and when the least restrictive meaning of that word was adopted Hopkinson’s actions didn’t meet that standard.

Any reasonable criticism of Swimming New Zealand therefore would be viewed in the same light. In other words the word respect in the Swimming New Zealand contract has many shades of meaning that are less than the protection of expression contained in the Bill of Rights.

And finally respect cannot be unconditional. Every first year Political Science student is taught that respect and loyalty have limits. The example is always Adolph Hitler. He commanded huge respect and loyalty in Germany. However actions were being taken that showed the personal respect being given to him was misplaced. His actions did not merit the loyalty he demanded and received.

Now I am certainly not suggesting there is any parallel between the management of Swimming New Zealand and Nazi Germany. However the people involved in running Swimming New Zealand do make mistakes that are often more important than a demand for personal loyalty on an application form.

For example the recent high altitude training camp was a serious error that damaged the performance of New Zealand swimmers at the World Championships. Trusting swimmers and many thousands of dollars were wasted. For twenty years high altitude literature has said do not do what New Zealand has just done. Staying silent out of “respect” for those who made that error would not be right.

For example when Jo Davidson took meet referees to the underwater viewing windows to instruct them on what to disqualify a swimmer for in the finals later in the day she forfeited the right to demand respect. Her dishonesty was more important that personal loyalty.

For example years ago the same Wellington officials who declined my protest about the Kilbirnie Pool depth and I am told informed the Raumati Club and the author of NZ Swim that I was just a trouble maker, yesterday issued an instruction that only the deep end of the pool was safe for diving. A good decision but we could have done without the insults and the decade it took to do the right thing.

Staying silent through events such as these is foolish. Respect for what is right outweighs any personal undertaking provided on an application form. So what are the criteria that apply when making the choice to speak up? Here are the items I take into account.

  1. Is the threatened disruption to swimmers or the organization serious?
  2. Is the complaint well-grounded—the reasons that support it should be strong enough to be publicly defensible. One person’s say-so is not sufficient.  
  3. Do I personally know enough about the subject to make an informed decision? Am I in a proper place to make an assessment of the seriousness of what has happened?
  4. Is the revelation going to be effective? Is it likely to eventually bring about change?
  5. Is the action appropriately motivated—it should be done out of concern for those whose interests are being jeopardized.   

I don’t know why Swimming New Zealand persists with the clause. As we have discussed it is legally almost impossible to enforce and the perception of weakness is hard to escape. Certainly and very appropriately the demand for personal loyalty in the membership form will continue to be only one factor taken into account when I publish a Swimwatch story. And the Bill of Rights says that’s the way it should be.   

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