A friend of mine recently expressed the view that we should all be respectful of everyone else’s opinions, regardless of to what extent we may disagree. Her subsequent dismissal and rejection of my disagreement to this seemed to me proof enough that indiscriminate acceptance of views is not as practical a policy as she may have thought.
As children, we are told to show complete respect and consideration to everybody’s opinions, and I think this is only right. For one thing, I believe that teaching acceptance and open-mindedness to children is definitely a positive thing, when there is so much prejudice and narrowness in the world; and for another, I really cannot see many of the views expressed to each other by young children being damaging enough to warrant any change of this approach. But I think that it is safe to say that once we have developed into people capable of understanding the difference between petty dislike of those who disagree with us and a justified disregard for bigotry, we no longer need to pretend to live by this rule of universal apology.
For this idea of views being damaging, I think, is the real crux of the matter. As we progress from childhood, we encounter more and more opinions which can truly affect the lives of other people. Whether opinions are harmful must surely be a huge factor in deciding whether or not they deserve respect. I see no reason why I should acknowledge views which cause people harm. It seems bizarre to me for anybody to feel entitled to the world’s automatic respect, whatever their outlook on life. Thousands of young gay people commit suicide every year, and this cannot be blamed solely on the direct hateful actions of bullies, but also on the steady, imposing disapproval and intolerance which even our relatively liberal-minded society radiates from various quarters. When your views contribute towards the otherisation and demonisation of a group of innocent people to the extent where they feel cornered into taking their own lives, to expect those views to be seen as sacrosanct on the basis that they are ‘just your opinion’ is absurd, arrogant and thoughtless. There is no ‘just’ about opinions, and nothing trivial about anything you might think and express which may cause unnecessary harm to other people. Your beliefs do not exist in a vacuum, and I am amazed that anybody could be so irresponsible as to think that a view being solely their personal belief on a matter could absolve them of responsibility for it. How many girls have been made to feel worthless by being frowned upon, sneered at and bullied simply for harmlessly exploring their sexual desires as a boy might? How many people have been made to feel inferior because of such superficial and harmless things as the colour of their skin, or their parents’ nationality, or their gender?
The beginnings of the vilification and ostracism of the Jews by the Nazis was made possible, and even easy, by the existing widespread prejudice and resentment towards them throughout Europe: an undercurrent of apathetic and relatively mild anti-Semitism, the dangerous potential of which was soon to be revealed. Ordinary Poles threw scissors from the upstairs windows of their homes on the Nazis’ request so that Orthodox Jews could be publically ridiculed and deprecated by having their beards forcibly shorn in the square. I wonder how many people in Western democracies today would be only too eager to go along with something similar to strip the dignity from Muslims or gays. I think I would rather not know.
Of course, there are other opinions that I really wish people didn’t hold, but, ultimately judging them not immediately and directly harmful, my respect for people who do hold them can remain untarnished. I think that a good example of this for me is religion. Whilst religion itself certainly has the potential to cause great harm, it is evident to me that many people who believe in a higher power and identify with a certain theological belief system are not causing any harm in doing so. There are many reasons for my longing for people not to follow religions. The blind acceptance of some taught wisdoms and the idea of faith can lead to a susceptibility to blindly accepting further assertions, and can result in being easily prejudiced or manipulated. This discouragement of criticism and independent thought is, to me, very troublesome. People have been led to do terrible things through religion. However, whilst I think that most religious institutions and doctrines are a profoundly negative force in the world, it would be unreasonable to claim that everyone who is religious is causing harm by being so. It may generally involve a seemingly odd sort of cherry-picking from supposedly sacred texts, but many people do manage to believe in God and identify with a religion without harming others. And for this reason, I do not believe that being religious is in and of itself an opinion not deserving of respect.
Of course, if somebody’s belief in God, or any other factor, leads to them holding other opinions which do cause people harm, then my respect for and good opinion of them may well be lost completely – and I am certainly concerned by the role that religions often seem to play in forming or exacerbating peoples’ hatred and prejudices. And, of course, people often tend to feel that their opinions deserve respect and recognition purely because they are backed by religious teachings.
I strongly feel that the only degree of respect that everybody should be able to expect irrespective of what their views are and how much they may affect others is that their basic human rights not be violated, and they be able to continue to feel safe in their day-to-day lives. Everyone, however bigoted, should be free from being hurt or threatened; free from themselves or their loved ones being endangered; free from their voices being silenced – even in the case of the poisonous chants of the loathsome Westboro Baptist Church. But I strongly feel that there is no reason for people to be free from the anger and frustration of the people affected by their views; nor should they be free from the disgust of people whose compassion and empathy mean that they resent the harm caused to these people. Everybody deserves to be able to express their views safely, but their entitlement does not and should not extend beyond that. People whose opinions cause or perpetuate the harm of other human beings must be prepared for scorn and contempt – and, yes, for a loss of respect.
[photo taken from www.colorsrainbow.com]