I recently participated in a webinar on how people with different political views could engage in more meaningful dialogue with one another. In today’s highly polarized climate, it seems like this is a worthwhile topic of exploration. However, no sooner had the basic rules for discourse been laid down than disagreement exploded. In response to the claim that we should “Hold ourselves and each other in the highest regard, respect and compassion”, someone asked, “How do you respect people who are racists, sexists and bigots?”
The kind of respect that was being requested was one that asked for recognition of the basic dignity of another person, not respect in the sense of admiration of that person. Yet this minimum threshold was too much for one participant. Other participants began to offer justifications for the presumption of respect.
One person responded, “We have labeled the person a racist. He may not think he is. We need to respect his thinking, just as we want to be respected.” This may be true. Miscommunication, misinformation, ignorance, or other factors often lead different people to contradictory conclusions regarding the beliefs or intentions of one another. It could be that the person is not racist at all, but was misheard. It could be that the person misspoke. It could be that the accuser was too loose in the application of these names. It is important to level criticisms for legitimate reasons rather than mere misunderstandings.
But what of people who really do hold deplorable beliefs, such as those who are openly racist and articulate in clear statements their support for the superiority of one group over another based on their race? Do they deserve basic respect from others?
Another person offered that even if someone has deplorable beliefs, you may still be able to learn from them. Again, this may be true. You may not ultimately adopt every view they hold. You may not be persuaded to agree with them on any view that they hold (even if they have sound views on matters beyond those beliefs that are deplorable). You may not even be convinced of the logical validity of how they justify their beliefs. By honestly listening to someone, though, you can come to understand what they believe are appropriate reasons to hold their beliefs, and so learn more about the way another human thinks.
But should your respect for another person depend upon your ability to learn from them or in some other way benefit from them?
All of the reasons offered in this forum for respecting others were conditional. They depended upon a person having some quality or being of some use to deserve respect.
What was missing from this conversation, and what may be missing more broadly in social and political discourse today, was the presumption that we ought to respect other people simply because they are other people. Human dignity is unconditional.
Humanity has made great progress in understanding this. But there is more work to be done. The dignity someone deserves should not be based on:
This does not mean that every person is deserving of admiration or emulation. You can show respect to someone to someone that is morally reprehensible, the antithesis of a role model, someone that you actively work against in terms of public policy or private endeavors. Nor does it mean that every belief ought to be treated with the same level of intellectual seriousness. You can respect someone while saying that they are completely wrong about either empirical or moral beliefs.
All this calls for is to treat every person ought to receive a baseline level of respect from others for no other reason than being a person.
It is a sad state when someone starts with the presumption that others do not deserve respect. It is little better when the justification for extending respect is conditional. Now more than ever, it is important to articulate the concept of universal human dignity and adhere to it by showing respect for all.