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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Simon Blackburn on respect

"I may respect your gardening by just letting you get on with it. Or, I may respect it by admiring it and regarding it as a superior way to garden. The word seems to span a spectrum from simply not interfering, passing by on the other side, through admiration, right up to reverence and deference. This makes it uniquely well placed for ideological purposes. People may start out by insisting on respect in the minimal sense, and in a generally liberal world they may not find it too difficult to obtain it. But then what we might call 'respect creep' sets in, where the request for minimal toleration turns into a demand for more substantial respect, such as fellow-feeling, or esteem, and finally deference and reverence. In the limit, unless you let me take over your mind and your life, you are not showing proper respect for my religious or ideological convictions."


Russell Blackford said...

This is from Blackburn's contribution to the book I'm currently reading - Philosophers Without Gods, ed. Louise M. Antony. This book would make a nice companion volume on the same shelf as 50 Voices of Disbelief and The Australian Book of Atheism.

Thanny said...

This is why I prefer the term tolerance for such matters.

Granted, when we say we tolerate something, it's likely to convey the notion that we don't like it, whether or not that's true. But that may be a good thing, given a wider perspective. We must accept the existence of beliefs or ideologies that we don't like, in order to have a society in which we are free to believe as we choose. Driving home the point with a word like tolerance can be useful.

So let us save respect for that which we consider respectable.

godsbelow said...

Respect must be one of the most abused words in recent history. People who are given to demanding "respect" for their beliefs seem to have mistaken "respect" for what I would call courtesy. I understand "respect" to mean a positive sense of esteem, a higher regard for something or someone based on qualities one finds worthy of praise and emulation. Whereas courtesy is something to which (in my view) everyone is entitled, based simply on the recognition of the common dignity we share as human beings, respect is a higher regard that has to be earned in some way.

When people demand "respect" for religious beliefs (their own or those of others), often I think what they're really demanding is courtesy, because they regard any criticism of religion as rude. Now, of course we understand that criticising religion isn't discourteous per se, but there will always be people who just don't get that. I'm all for courteous criticism of religion, except in the case of the most vile excesses of religion, which deserve unequivocal condemnation. But being courteous doesn't automatically entail respect: and there is so much in religion that I simply cannot respect.

But the very fact that people who call for "respect" for religion are misusing the word leaves scope for what Blackburn correctly describes as "respect creep": religious apologists quickly cease to demand what they see as courtesy and start to demand esteem for religious stupidity and iniquity.

It puts me in mind of the episode of Q&A a while back in which the thuggish Tony Burke demanded that Richard Dawkins show "respect" for religion by just-shutting-the-hell-up. Burke could use a lesson in courtesy, as well as some education in the finer points of his native language.

Eamon Knight said...

A few years ago Dawkins was interviewed on TV Ontario (during the promo tour for TGD). The interviewer took Dawkins to task for the passage about the OT God being a genocidal maniac (you know the one I mean)on the grounds that it was "disrespectful". So? It's also true; it's right there in the bloody text! But no one is allowed to point out that obvious fact?

I get that moderns generally believe in a more humane deity (the interviewer is Jewish, though I don't know how religious), but there also seems to be a desire to maintain a connection to the traditions. However, doing so requires burying the less pleasant aspects thereof. Hence, it's really very rude of Gnus to bring that up.

Marshall said...

Blackburn's second sense, respect owed to a superior way of being, may obtain in ex-feudal regimes where the Quality expected the Other Classes to know their proper place and show due deference; not so much out here towards the edge of things. We believe that true respect is always a two-way street. In the US Army, one says one salutes the rank, not the man. So "respect" (like "wealth" and other forms of privilege) is something various political groups would like to arrogate to themselves, but I say that's a pathology.

"Respect for the persons of all men and women" ... not necessarily for the things they believe but for their personal integrity ... is the basis for humanism, secular or otherwise. We even (theoretically) respect the worst, the guiltiest of criminals as persons entitled to their day in court, to reasonableness in how they are handled, and so on. I am really disappointed in Simon that he would find that respect practiced as "minimal toleration" is dangerous. He's pursuing a "Domino Theory": unless we bomb the shit out of Vietnam, Laos/Indonesia/India! will be lost to the Reds and next thing we will be loosing to the Commies in the streets of San Clemente.

"All persons" includes the self; one should respect one's self as much as any other. Someone with self-respect has no need to toady to pseudo-authoritarian pontification or pathetic whining. Respect for others and self-respect come from the same source. I say we should do what we can to encourage true respect and not let it devolve into mere "minimal toleration". Mutual respect in the end; but somebody has to go first and teach the lesson, eh? So who is the grownup in the room?

What will prevent Simon's escalation is the fact that "all" includes him as well as anybody: his legitimate respect for himself keeps him from the toadyism he fears.

It says here the best way to help people escape from toadying to institutionally sanctioned self-seeking demagoguery is to teach them to respect themselves. True respect is always a two-way street ... although of course somebody has to go first. Who is the grownup in the room?