The Freedom to be Disrespectful

Aretha Franklin singing “R-E-S-P-E-C-T”

By Jeffrey the Barak

Disrespectful is a severely overused word.

There is a very significant distinction to be made when it comes to respect for the opinions or beliefs of others. There is an obligation to respect another person’s right and freedom to believe what they believe. However there is no obligation to respect their beliefs, if they are not aligned with one’s own beliefs.

By disagreeing with another person’s belief or opinion, we exercise our freedom, our right to have another opinion, and in return, in a free society, we expect the other person to respectfully acknowledge that we differ.

So for example, I can say to a friend, “You believe in God, and you will not drive a car or flip a switch on a Saturday, and I respect your right to believe what you believe, but I do not respect that which you believe, because according to my beliefs, it is nonsense”. And in return, it is reasonable to expect at the very least, that they should not find my expression of my true opinion offensive.

I should be able to say to a Christian, or a Moslem, or a Hindu, “I think that is all a load of imaginary nonsense”, and in return I should be able to expect no anger, no death threat but just an acknowledgement that we believe different things.

Unfortunately, in the real world, belief systems have their rules and laws, and there is a perceived crime by the name of blasphemy. So if you dare to express any negative opinion about certain people’s beliefs, they may want to kill you, and they may even see nothing at all wrong with that.

The Spanish Inquisition, and the death-threat unleashed on author Salman Rushdie are two examples of this hazard. So while we are technically free to say what we honestly believe, it may not be safe to do so, if the other party’s belief is a dangerous one.

With regard to respect, we are obliged in a civilized and educated society, to accept that our neighbors and countrymen might be Catholics, Buddhists, Jews and Sikhs, and we must respect their freedom of religion, and defend their right to believe. This is the essence of the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, and is why you cannot get thrown in jail for believing or worshipping what you want.

But we have no obligation to respect the actual beliefs themselves. If, for example we believe that God is imaginary, we do not have to pretend otherwise in order to be respectful to a devout Moslem or Christian living next door. Being honest about it, should in theory be a more respectful thing to do.

So that is the distinction, between respecting a person’s right and freedom or choice to believe something, and respecting the specific things that they believe.

But that is religion. Do the same rules of behavior exist for politics? Absolutely yes. A Republican and a Democrat are never really of completely opposite opinion, because overall, these two schools of thought have more in common than they might like to think. They are both fairly moderate mainstream American philosophies. But they seem quite opposite during an election season.

It is healthy to consider, debate and discuss every proposition, and every detail of each party’s manifesto and it is very good to disagree and pitch our differences of opinion against each other. But in order to be free to be, for example, a Democrat, you have to have the freedom to also be a Republican. You have to be free to criticize both and agree with either. You can tell someone you think they are completely wrong, but you cannot use force to make them change their mind, or punish them for their point of view.

When applying the “disrespect test” to religion and politics, one difference is, it is illegal to act out hate on the basis of religion, and quite rightly so. We saw what happened when the Nazis hated the Jews, so we must always remember that before reacting to something with hatred. For example, a small number of Moslems did terrible things on 9-11, but we cannot reasonably say we hate Moslems, because most Moslems are just as nice as Christians or anyone else.

But if we say, for example, that we hate Republicans, or hate Democrats, it is not illegal, but it it is also not reasonable. We can disagree and criticize and point out that which we may feel is cruel, or unfair or unjust, but hatred, while not illegal, is never reasonable.

“Disrespectful” is a word that we hear a lot these days. It is overused in fact, because people can confuse a difference of opinion with a withdrawal of respect for another person. And people can also react to a display of another value structure as if it was disrespectful of their own values. An example of this is when someone “immodestly dressed” inadvertently walks through a neighborhood of very religious people during a religious occasion. To the walker, nothing seems wrong, they are just going from A to B wearing shorts and a tank top, but to the religious, it is perceived as an insult. But to be expected to believe what a majority believes is just as disrespectful to the non-believer. We have to accept that not everyone is going to be agreeable.

So again, it is reasonable to apparently disrespect a person’s belief if you feel it is wrong and not deserving of your respect, but unreasonable to disrespect their freedom and their right to believe it. If their belief is potentially harmful to others, then there is the law for our protection,

We cannot stop them believing, for example, that anyone who wears yellow pants on a Tuesday should be electrocuted, but we can make that a crime if it is unreasonable.


  1. This is a very good, thought provoking topic.
    The saddest part about religious stuff is, exactly as you put it, that people kill and harm others in the name of said religion.
    I was born and raised in Tennessee, and lived there up until relocating to Texas in 2001.
    Throughout this “Bible belt”, you’d be amazed at how often and how ferociously religion is brought up as an outright “make or break” of a person’s character.

    Let me give you a brief example of what a “misfit” such as myself can go through in the deep south.
    And, this kind of thing is at an all-time high right now.
    Racism is being disguised as a deep devotion to a political party, and thus, it’s causing people to be more passionate about their conservative beliefs.

    Ok… I’m a very creative spirit that breaks all of the norms of Tennessee or Texas.
    I’m in Texas, but I belong in Las Vegas or Hollywood.
    I may have been physically born a male, but I feel very misplaced… I’m a non-practicing Transgender person.

    I have phases of a short, stylish Elvis haircut.
    I even use a small, minimal amount of eye makeup to make my eyes match the hair.
    Now… people who have known me forever, and total strangers alike, find me “cool”.
    The observations are usually, “What a nice look… and, did you know even Elvis Presley used eye makeup? Nothing wrong with that.”
    So, this is the look that I generally use for business, job related things, and most of my important outings.

    Now, really hold on to what I just related there.
    If I’m just a guy trying to look like Elvis, it’s “okay”… even as far as wearing makeup.

    I have another side.
    A lot of times, just to go shopping or out for a walk?
    I have phases that I just can’t suppress my inner gender turmoil anymore.
    I’ll throw on a very realistic full wig… and, enhance my eyes just a tad.
    Slightly more enhanced than what I’d do to resemble Elvis, but not -too- much more.

    Now… family tells me that they like “the Elvis look” better.
    And, how, besides that, they also “fear” that I’ve hidden behind a normal marriage and children lifestyle to conceal that I’m gay.
    I explain that they are completely wrong borderline paranoid.
    I stifle myself, resisting the urge to tell them that, if I knew they’d accept it, I feel like I wasn’t supposed to BE a man.
    And, also, that gender identity and sexual preference are in no way related.

    But… I keep it to myself, and just silently wish that they weren’t so closed-minded and ill-informed.

    Total strangers, in the south, will also approach you with the same accusations.
    I don’t know if this is true everywhere else, but my experience of the south is frightening.
    A person who is simply more feminine than their outer gender would suggest comes under attack as being, falsely, gay.
    Can you imagine how painful it is to feel hated for “being” something that you’re not?
    I’m not gay at all, and yet, I could very easily be hated for being gay.
    All in the name of religion.

    A lot of these very issues have led me into a juxtaposition of Misotheism.
    As intelligent as you are, Jeffrey, you’ve probably heard of that.
    But, in case not, and for the benefit of other readers who may see this article, Misotheism is where a person does believe in God’s existence, but they feel that he is cruel, indifferent, unfair… what have you.
    I struggle with such feelings, and therefore feel that I lean toward Misotheism.

    My best friend of 22 years still lives in Tennessee.
    These days, he is an ordained Baptist minister.
    He is -very- outspoken in his hatred of gay people, and the other predictables of such types.
    He also can tend to jam his beliefs down the throats of others.
    This puts someone like me in a very hard position.
    This friend paid an extra airfare, for my wife, so that my last trip to visit my dying mother would allow for my wife to be there with me.
    I had paid for my flight, and when he heard that I wished my wife was going, too, he wanted to help.
    He’s that giving, and that kind.
    Also, he’s the most fun person to hang out with.
    We both like to walk by folks in stores, and do random little pranks with “fart” devices. Immature, yes, but even the most serious people, like myself, have to sometimes break away from all of the serious.
    so, you see that this friend is great, in so many ways?
    But, when he gets in one of his “holy phases”, look out.

    My approach with people, when I feel that the subject matter is becoming too serious, and maybe even confrontational, is to shift our conversation onto things that I know we both DO have in common.
    But, when a person is in that passionate of a mood, it’s like you just can’t snap them out of it.

    If you ask me, I think our society is in an argumentative state unlike we’ve ever seen before.
    It’s that way about most everything.
    I can be looking at the vitamin shelves in the grocery store… minding my own business… and, some lummox will come up and say, “You know vitamins don’t even work, right? Just makes your pee look pretty.”
    I politely dismiss the intrusive bum with, “Ah, well, I hope that’s not true. Guess I’ll find out for myself over time.”
    And, they stand there, -still- giving me all of these reasons why vitamins don’t work.

    However, staying on subject with your original topic… it’s highly unlikely that someone would pull a hate crime on me just for browsing vitamins… even if -they- don’t believe in vitamins.
    But, sadly, the likelihood of my being a hate-crime victim on a day that I wore long hair and some eye makeup is much, much higher.
    The possibility of that notion makes me sad, paranoid, and angry for having to FEEL sad and paranoid

    I don’t know what the answer is.
    People like me lose either way.
    I can stifle myself into misery, expressing no trace of the gender that I feel myself to be inside.
    Or, I can express it, but be haunted by a constant, low-grade “hum” of fear that I could be attacked.

    I have a hope that one day, this intolerance people have for each other and their beliefs gets better than it is now.
    Sadly, though, at 37, I don’t think I’ll see it in this lifetime.

  2. I have no respect for anyone whose belief system exclaims that other people will go to everlasting hell just because their beliefs are different than what is expressed through the system. No need to pussy foot around.

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