27 April, 2009

Respect Mah O-pin-i-on!

I respect your opinion, you ought to respect mine.

How many times have we heard this? In these days of hardcore partisanship and intransigence, it seems as close as anyone gets to agreeing to disagree. But wait a minute... I should respect your opinion? Why? We all have the right to our opinion. We all have the right to free expression. Who said we had the right to be respected?

It seems that we have confused, or perhaps conflated the right to express an opinion with respect for others' opinions. They are not the same thing, nor should they be. In fact, far from being an expression of freedom of thought, the idea that we should respect each other's opinions is sometimes being used as a way to gag free expression. Okay, I respect your opinion, you should respect mine. Conversation over. Not only is it a sidestep to free debate, but it is also a sign of intellectual laziness to just say, “Okay, I respect your opinion,” because it means you don't have the inclination to properly rebut it and defend your own position.

We have to get away from the idea that hearing every opinion means respecting every opinion. In a free society, it is imperative that even the most vile and repugnant views be heard. It's the only way we can know what real ugliness, or just plain lunacy, lurks in some people's minds. I respect their right to hold whatever opinions they may have. I respect, support and defend their right to express those opinions by any and all means available to them. But respect the opinions? Screw that! I do not respect the opinion of those who think all Muslims should be interred for the duration of the war on terror – or at least until we've worked out what the war on terror actually is. I do not respect the opinions of those who believe the Nazi holocaust never happened. I do not respect the opinion of those who claim that global warming is either a hoax, or at best a theory. Such points of view are not worthy of respect. It's vital that they be heard, but not respected.

None of this is to say that you cannot respect an opinion you disagree with. Just as free speech does not mean free respect, disagreement does not necessarily mean disrespect. For instance, there is the view that setting a timetable for withdrawing from Iraq will mean that the warring factions will just wait it out and all hell will break loose afterwards. I don't agree with that opinion because I believe that all hell will break loose after the withdrawal no matter when it comes. But I respect the opinion because I can appreciate the logic and reason behind it. We should always behave respectfully, but that does not mean respecting every viewpoint no matter how flawed, illogical, intellectually dishonest or just plain stupid it may be.

And while we're at it, let's not confuse or conflate respect for the opinion with respect for the individual. It's entirely possible to maintain respect for the person while having nothing but righteous contempt for their opinion. Experience teaches us that contemptible views are held by contemptible people, but it doesn't mean that such opinions can't be held in good faith by otherwise perfectly decent people, or that reasonable opinions can't sometimes be held by utter prats.

That, dear friends, is my opinion. You might agree with the opinion and respect it. You might agree with the opinion and not respect it because you consider it so obvious as to hardly be worth stating. You might disagree with the opinion, yet still respect where I'm coming from. Or, you might disagree and disrespect the opinion, in which case you should show no mercy as you tear it to shreds. That's what free speech is really all about.

Originally posted at Strawberry Fields 9/4/2007

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