Rationally Speaking

A monthly e-column by Massimo Pigliucci
Department of Botany, University of Tennessee

N. 45, January 2004

On tolerance vs. respect

Most of us citizens of democratic countries would agree, at least in principle, that tolerance for other people’s ideas and customes is a positive value. A subset of us would also agree that respect for other people’s ways of thinking should ideally be an integral part of the ethos of a free society. I disagree about the latter, and I’d like to briefly explore the difference between -- and the limits of -- the too often confused concepts of tolerance and respect.

While it is possible to think of tolerance and respect as synonims, or at least as tightly linked to each other, I am going to argue that while respect implies tolerance, the other way around is by no means assured. I think that being tolerant means something akin to “live and let live”; for example, I am tolerant of the Ku Klux Klan in the sense that I am not going to push for outlawing explictly racist groups (as is the case, for example, in Canada), as long as they don’t advocate violence against minorities. Does that mean that I have respect for a view that considers blacks as inferior to whites? Hell no; I despise everything the Klan stands for, and I have a real hard time comprehending how any decent human being could possibly conceive of belonging to such a group. That, I think, makes the distinction between tolerance and respect as clear as I can muster to explain.

The example of the Klan also immediately clarifies why one can tolerate something without respecting it. A second or two more of considered thought should elucidate why, on the other hand, respect does imply tolerance. It is hard to imagine that one can respect some ideas, say the right of a woman to seek abortion, and not tolerate its actual practice (that is, demanding laws that restrict or eliminate the possibility of a woman to obtain an abortion).

Now that I have established the framework of my discussion, let us get a bit more detailed about the nuances of both tolerance and respect. To begin with, it seems to me that one is under no obligation of respecting any set of ideas one profoundly disagrees with. So I don’t feel the least bit guilty for not respecting republican politics (I think it tends to be motivated either by greed or by a grossly misconceived notion of human flourishing) or religious belief (because it worships an imaginary being and pretends to derive from it a universal moral code, often with the urge to impose it on others). When my republican or religious acquaintances (or casual readers) get “offended” at my attitude of “disrespect” they are missing an important point: I tolerate them (as I should, believing as I do in democracy and a liberal society), but that doesn’t shield them from criticism, even of a satyrical flavor.

What about tolerance? Are there ideas and customes that should not be tolerated, even by members of a liberal society? Yes, plenty. The practice, common in some societies, of operating on a young girl’s clitoris so that she will not feel sexual pleasure as an adult is barbaric, and cannot and should not be defended as simply another “cultural custom.” It is wrong for the simple reason that it hurts an innocent human being who is in no position to understand or oppose what is being done to her. There are many more obvious instances of things we shouln’t tolerate, of course (say, terrorism), but I think that examples like cliterectomy bring the limits of the concept into sharper focus, because not everybody in our society agrees that such a practice is barbarian. Heck, many of my liberal friends even recoil from the use of the term “barbarian” when referring to another society. Sorry, folks, but I think that Iran is currently stuck in the late Middle Ages, and I make no apologies for stating it -- which I don’t mean as a compliment.

Finally, what about tolerance and respect for individuals, rather than ideas? I think that the same considerations can be applied to people holding some ideas as to the ideas they hold. After all, ideas don’t exist outside people’s minds, last time I checked. If I tolerate, but don’t respect, what the KKK stands for, my tolerance extends to its members, but I sure am under no obligation to respect the latter any more than the former. There is, however, an important difference between ideas and individuals, in the context of this discussion. An individual can hold a despicable idea in perfectly good faith, which may entitle the individual to respect, even though one may not wish to grant that status to the idea (it follows from everything I said above that both the idea and the individual should be tolerated). For example, I have a good friend who is a republican; I have little respect for many of her political ideas, but she is a very good person, and means well, so not only I respect her, but I consider her a dear friend.

However, this asymmetry between people and ideas can work the other way around. Some people may hold ideas that are worthy of respect (or even of outright endorsement), but they themselves may fail to meet the conditions necessary for being respected. For example, consider someone who lies and manipulates others in order to achieve a good end. Unlike Machiavelli, I may cheer for the final outcome, but I wouldn’t invite the person in question to dinner at my house (which is why I am glad of Saddam Hussein’s fall, and still wish with all my being that Bush not be re-elected in ‘04 -- no contradiction at all is involved here).

Tolerance, therefore, is not and does not imply respect, and the relationship between the two is much more nuanced than seems to emerge from many instances of public discourse in our society. Next time you watch Bill O’Reilly, please feel free to tolerate the existence of Fox News, but also to relish in utmost disrespect for both Bill’s ideas and for him as a person, considering the willful lies he abitually dishes out to his audience.

© by Massimo Pigliucci, 2004