As I grew up, I learned that respect comes in different forms. I’m supposed to respect my elders (age has its privileges; assume the older are also wiser). I’m supposed to respect the American flag (don’t let it touch the ground). I’m supposed to respect the wilderness (leave it as if it were untouched).
One of my challenges—and perhaps not only mine—is that I have a hard time separating respect from tolerance. In our current age of deep disagreement, we regularly witness some new outrage de jour, some new idea or person whom we’re supposed to name, shame, and obliterate when not in line with the cultural orthodoxy. As of this writing, last week social media told me I was supposed to be very angry about Chick-fil-A opening a restaurant in New York City (here’s a better take, I think).
It seems that more often than not, those who demand we join the militant march for social justice on whatever fashionable issue it is we ought to be angry about and fighting for (e.g., the trending hashtags on Twitter) are the very ones who self-describe as tolerant. Yet in practice, they seem to be the most intolerant, making room only for people who share their exact view.
Yet tolerance has often meant a kind of respect for the views of others. Sometimes it takes the form of “to each his/her own” or “you do you” or “live and let live.” But this kind of respect strikes me as only really being possible when we’re talking about things that don’t matter much. It’s not too difficult for me to respect or tolerate others whose views or convictions I don’t find all that relevant, interesting, or even offensive. For me, something like veganism isn’t really a big deal. If you’re like me, perhaps you and I will pat ourselves on the back for being tolerant and respectful of vegans. But for some vegans, it’s a put-my-stake-in-the-ground issue. So we might imagine, there are vegans who tolerate and respect, and militant vegans who don’t.
Yet, if tolerance and respect are really only the sorts of attitudes we have for things that don’t matter much, I’m not sure we’re really talking about tolerance or respect at all.
It’s with this in mind that I’m deeply appreciative of John Inazu’s understanding of tolerance. Inazu is a professor of law at Washington University, and his recent book Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving through Deep Difference is one I highly recommend. He describes tolerance as the ability to live with others whom we might think are reprehensible, who’s views are deplorable, and with whom we vehemently disagree.
Tolerance of this sort is only possible because of the shared humanity that we have with one another. That is, if you claim the right to hold to certain convictions that you consider sacred and inviolable, then out of respect for the shared humanity of all others, you must allow the same kind of space for someone to utterly hate, despise, and reject the things you believe are most important. To the extent that we do not do this, we dehumanize the other, failing both at respect and tolerance.
As Inazu describes it, tolerance that aims to foster a kind of co-existence among those who are deeply different is only possible on the basis of a certain kind of respect: one which sees humans as being equal in a fundamental way.
Now, this may sound very pie-in-the-sky, like a view through rose-colored glasses, especially in our present age of outrage in which we tend to live in echo chambers that merely serve to support our own personal perspective on things, encouraging us to believe that we are unquestionably right, and that those who disagree with us are just plain wrong (or bad or evil, etc.).
From my angle, there’s really only one way that Inazu’s account can work: we have to see one another as made in the image of God. Such a perspective demands from us a certain kind of treatment of others—otherwise, to think less of them on the basis of disagreement would amount to offending God himself.
So I find it very timely that a wise friend recently pointed something out to me: Jesus never let an issue or behavior stand in the way of a relationship. That is, Jesus treated people with dignity even when he disagreed with them. That’s respect of the deepest and most genuine sort. Jesus sees people for who they really are. That’s risky and vulnerable, to be sure. But it seems to me that in our age of outrage, that’s what most of us really want: to be taken seriously, to be heard, and for our views to be considered rather than immediately dismissed. When that happens, we feel validated, humanized—as if our existence and our thoughts matter. That’s respect.
I think Inazu’s vision is something our culture desperately needs. I’m taking Jesus as my model in trying to achieve it in my small corner of the world. I invite you to as well.
This post reflects the views and experiences of the author, and is intended to start a conversation. Please share your thoughts in the comments below!
Or, if you’d like to hear some overall thoughts on respect from Christians at THRED, you can find those over here.