by David Geelan  |  19 April 2020  |

Does respect for every person imply respect for their every idea and belief? Is tolerance necessarily universal?

I’m writing this in early April 2020. Some precision about the date seems important, because the world is changing so fast at the moment. Podcasts I listen to typically record a week before being released, and are frequently already out of date by the time they come out.

There are many things the world is learning in the present crisis, and many taken-for-granted assumptions that are facing new challenges. I conceived of the idea and the need for this article very early in 2020, though, before it became clear how dramatically all our lives would be changed. It grew out of my previous piece for Adventist Today, entitled ‘Hermetically Sealed: Conspiracy Theories and Special Knowledge’. That one sparked some passionate discussions about a range of topics, including vaccination and chemtrails.

I was taken to task for, it was alleged, using pejorative terms to describe those who disagreed with my views. I take that allegation seriously, because my intention is to respect every human being, even those with whom I most passionately disagree. I re-read what I had written and was able to satisfy myself – but not my interlocutors – that I had described ideas, rather than people.

Respecting People or Ideas?

This is the key idea I want to talk about: while all of us identify strongly with our beliefs, ideologies and ideas, the person holding the idea is not the same thing as the idea itself. It is possible to respect the person while rejecting the idea. Rejecting someone’s idea is not, in itself, expressing disrespect toward the person.

It is possible, of course, to disrespect the holder of an idea by describing the person rather than the idea – even something as simple as saying ‘anti-vaxxers’ rather than ‘anti-vax’. We might get into linguistic tangles when trying to describe large groups of people who share a particular view, but in general it’s worth taking care to focus our criticisms on the ideas, not on the people holding them.

Statements such as ‘I can’t believe there are people so dumb they believe X’ are, obviously, very unhelpful and slide across into showing disrespect for the person.

The concept of respect for persons is an interesting one in itself. There are (at least) three forms of such respect: (1) respect for the person as a fellow human being; (2) respect for the person in relation to some role that person holds and (3) esteem for the person.

The first is, in my view, automatic and unequivocal. Every human being – yes, even Hitler and Stalin – deserves the respect accorded to every human being. We may passionately disagree with a person’s beliefs and actions, strive to thwart them, even go to war with them, but nonetheless recognise they are human.

The reason this is so very important is exactly illustrated by Hitler and Stalin: each chose to dehumanise some classes of human beings, to not ascribe to them the basic respect due to every human being. And, once people are dehumanised, they become disposable, expendable. So, whether someone is in our in-group or out-group, like us or very different, whether we agree or passionately disagree, every human being deserves respect for their basic humanity.

Honorable Roles

The second form of respect – respect for role – is related to the role a person holds in relation to us. Jesus spoke about the respect due to our parents, for example, and the 5th Commandment requires honour toward our parents. Some parents are dishonourable, but that concept relates to the third form of respect, discussed below. Simply because they are our parents, there is a level of respect that is appropriate to the role. If they are abusive or harmful we may need to distance ourselves and our families from them and limit contact, but that shouldn’t shade into disrespect. I completely understand that this is a difficult teaching, having had child sexual abuse strike very close to home.

Other roles – teacher, pastor, president – also have a form of respect that is appropriate to the holder of that position, simply by virtue of holding that role. We may not esteem our teacher as a person, yet there are standards of behaviour and communication toward that person that are innate in their role as teacher, in relation to our role as student. As members of a congregation, there is a level of respect appropriate to the pastor, whether or not we see eye-to-eye. And even if we think a president (of a country or denomination or professional association) is inept or harmful, and passionately disagree with that person’s beliefs and actions, there is still a form of respect appropriate to the role that extends to all past and future holders of the role.

Of course, this form of respect does not (or should not) only go ‘upward’ in hierarchies: it should also go ‘downward’. Parents should display respect toward their children, whether or not they like their actions and ideas, because they are in the role of parent to that child. Teachers to students, pastors to congregants, presidents and prime ministers to citizens. This respect is one of the things that is a bulwark against abuse of power: a recognition of the respect due to those ‘below’ us in various power relationships.

There is also appropriate respect between peers and equals, based on their relationships – spouses with each other, for example. This is more strongly the case the closer the relationship: I owe a deeper level of role-related respect to my wife and my adult children and their partners (whom I now see as peers) than to colleagues at my university, members of my professional association, fellow Australian citizens. But there is respect that is simply due to the role we play in another’s life, and they in ours.

Earned Esteem

The third form of respect is esteem for the person, and it alone must be earned. It is not innate to each human being, and it is not innate to the holder of a role. Esteem for a person can relate to their knowledge, skills, attributes and abilities, or just the way they act in the world. It is earned through kindness, consistency, honesty and all the other virtues – indeed, one way of thinking about virtues is as the kinds of things that, if practiced, will increase the esteem in which others hold us. Now, in some cultures and some times and places, practicing what most of us would consider vices – greed is a prime example – comes to be a way to earn esteem with some people and groups. In general, however, we earn esteem for ourselves by being truthful, trustworthy, humble, consistent and kind.

This esteem also influences the ways in which our future actions will be interpreted – we’re all less eager to come running the 4,720th time the boy cries “Wolf!” and it turns out there’s no wolf there. If we have a reputation for integrity, something that appears shady on the surface will be judged generously, whereas a reputation for mendacity will cause even the most innocent action or statement to be scrutinised. This is a natural consequence of our actions in the world – a form of secular karma – and it does not show disrespect to someone to judge their current and future actions in the light of their past actions.

This has been a long digression into exploring (my best-but-fallible understanding of) the nature of respect for persons, but the key topic is really “What respect is owed to ideas?”

I would argue that the respect that is owed to ideas is two-fold: (1) Respect toward their holders as human beings and (2) rigorous investigation to test their truth and their effects in the world.

The fact that someone identifies as a holder of a specific idea, whether that idea is Christianity, humanism, scientism, Zoroastrianism or National Socialism (Nazism) does not in itself entitle the person to additional respect over the basic respect owed to them as a fellow human being. It does, however, place them in relationship with the fellow holders of that idea – fellow Christians or fellow followers of David Icke – so there is a level of respect due to them in accordance with that role, but that respect is only due from those with whom they are in relationship and therefore in a role. Hindus cannot meaningfully demand additional respect from non-Hindus on the basis that they are Hindus, and the same applies for all other groups.

We display respect for the people who hold ideas with which we disagree by being civil, by treating them with courtesy, by living the Golden Rule, even in our most passionate disagreements.

The other form of respect for ideas is the key topic of this article (finally!). Sometimes those who hold ideas – both mainstream and less so – say “You are disrespecting my personal beliefs if you subject them to scrutiny and challenge them”. The issue of conflating such perceived disrespect for the belief with disrespect for the person was discussed above: it’s really important that we direct the critique with care, but at the same time my ideas and ideologies are not my identity, and it is healthy for me to understand that.

I Can Respect You Without Respecting Your Belief

I seek to subject the ideas I hold to the most rigorous scrutiny I can. I want to believe things that are true, and I want to hold ideas and beliefs that make the world a better place. That is the two-fold test: is it true, and does it make the world better? (There are complex questions about ‘better for whom?’ and ‘better judged by what standards?’ but those are for another time.) I very much like Rotary International’s ‘Four-way Test’:

  1. Is it the truth?
  2. Is it fair to all concerned?
  3. Will it build goodwill and better friendships?
  4. Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

My approach to seeking the truth has been explored pretty comprehensively in all of my previous articles for Adventist Today, so I won’t cover that ground again. One recent example is interesting, though. Back in 2014 Pope Francis spoke briefly at a Pentecostal conference. Recently, a video of that talk circulated in which the English subtitles bore no relationship to what he actually said, but tied in quite nicely with certain Seventh-day Adventist beliefs. Many Adventists shared the video, rather than investigating its truth. This is a very frequent phenomenon in the world of social media: we share what fits our existing beliefs, rather than seeking to challenge things and test their truth. While I do try to investigate and fact-check anything I share, I have been wrong and have had to retract, withdraw and apologise for things I have posted in the past.

The issue of harm is particularly important right now, but it is always important. Is a conspiracy theory, belief or idea mainly harmless, or will it hurt, embezzle or kill people? The idea that hydroxychloroquine is a safe treatment for COVID-19, for example, is not supported by good evidence, and there are cases of people with severe liver damage from participating in clinical trials… and of people who have died taking related chemicals without medical supervision. The idea that simply sipping warm water frequently enough or – I swear I heard this very seriously proposed in a video sent to me: blowing a hairdryer up your nose – will protect from the novel coronavirus might just seem silly and harmless… until someone relies on these means and doesn’t take the steps that really will protect from infection – handwashing and isolation – and passes on the virus to someone it kills.

We owe respect – of at least one kind and up to three kinds – to other human beings. But the appropriate kind of respect to apply to ideas is not to accept them uncritically, but to scrutinise them rigorously in terms of (a) whether they are the truth and (b) whether they cause benefit or harm in the world if acted upon. And applying this scrutiny to the ideas someone holds and actively promotes is not showing disrespect to that person.

David Geelan is Sue’s husband and Cassie and Alexandra’s dad. He started out at Avondale College and has ended up (so far) as an Associate Professor of Science Education at Griffith University on the Gold Coast, Australia.

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