The Freedom to be Disrespectful
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.