Two kinds of respect

The word “respect” gets tossed around a lot in discussions of how people with differing belief systems should interact. One of the problems that arises, especially in the Tone Wars, is that the different factions have very different ideas of what the word means.

There are two very different kinds of respect. One is contained in the idea of a respectful distance… you have your space, I have mine, and we refrain from infringing on each other’s until we’ve exchanged signals that such infringement is welcome. The second is more like respect for a worthy adversary… we acknowledge the other person’s strength and competence, and test our capabilities against theirs, hoping that one or both of us will become stronger from the exchange.

Accomodationists, and the liberal Western world in general, favor the former kind of respect. To respect someone else, say they, is to give them plenty of space, to avoid doing anything that might unsettle their equilibrium. Along with this is the idea of not challenging someone else’s beliefs or lifestyle choices; when they express a value that differs from yours, at most you lightly state that your views are quite different, which is a cue to both of you to avoid the subject from now on. To respond with a challenge or disagreement is seen as an act of aggression, an infringement on someone else’s space, crossing a boundary of personal engagement that they didn’t want to see crossed.

Gnu atheists, on the other hand, favor the latter kind of respect. To respect someone else in their eyes means to question them when you think their ideas are questionable, to give them your best shot and invite them to give you theirs. It means presenting your ideas openly and expecting the other person to be robust enough to deal with them. Holding back your true opinions and values is seen as disrespect, as treating the other person like they’re too weak to defend their beliefs.

When the two different notions of respect meet, we end up with something like the Earth-Minbari war, where one side displays their weapons openly as a mark of respect, and the other reads this as a hostile action and fires on them. We all know what happens after that. (For the insufficiently geeky, here’s a hint: the scenario started the Earth-Minbari war.)

As I said, liberal Western culture mostly seems to favor the “respectful distance” idea, which is why so many people, even atheists, attack the Gnus for being disrespectful. I do think the “respectful distance” idea is important, especially as our society becomes increasingly diverse. In our daily lives, we encounter people with so many differing lifestyles and opinions that we would never have a moment’s peace if we were all trying to challenge each other whenever there was a conflict. But it should be noted that that kind of respect by definition includes the idea of distance. If we refuse to engage other people when our ideas conflict, then our potential for intimacy with them is limited by how much or how little we have in common. Openness to conflict, on the other hand, allows us to be intimately connected even with people whose ideas on important subjects differ dramatically. A world where all points of disagreement were treated with kid gloves and respectful silence would be a world devoid of true intimacy.

The other thing that can’t happen without challenge and conflict is growth and change. I’m not saying all growth requires conflict: far from it. Indeed, very few people change their ideology as a direct result of someone else’s arguments. But as we are exposed to other people’s ideas and values, as we see our own through their eyes, we reassess and sometimes adjust our own. It’s a continual process, a very healthy process, and it can’t happen without that exposure. And sometimes we have a particularly entrenched idea, and need a particularly hard jostle to shake us into re-evaluating it.

I think it’s good for the health of society that most people operate under the “respectful distance” model most of the time. But it is essential for the health of society that conflict be allowed and sometimes encouraged, and that different voices be heard, even ones that make the hearers uncomfortable. We all need a jostle from time to time, and even the jostles that are useless for refining our ideas help us be battle-ready for future conflicts.

3 thoughts on “Two kinds of respect

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  2. Funny, I don’t think of either of those as being what I do when I converse with believers. I bring up my beliefs, but I don’t bring them up in the context of starting a debate unless the other person is clearly interested in one. I recently had a funny moment with my friend Taylor. He was looking for CDs to play while we were traveling, and he said, “would it bother you if I played a band thats technically Christian? Most of the songs aren’t about God, but a few are spiritual.” That was respect, but there wasn’t any sense of distance or avoiding uncomfortable topics. It felt a bit like when people find out I’m a vegetarian and ask if I mind if they eat meat in front of me; the implication is that they won’t do something that makes me uncomfortable, but there is open communication rather than uneasy avoiding of topics.


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