Entitlement to one’s opinion – the negative liberty of having one’s opinion tolerated by others – is among the founding principles of western liberalism. Conflict lines are drawn when this principle collides with the intolerance that characterises much religious and social dogma.
Sometimes blood is shed: Rushdie, Theo van Gogh, the Jyllands-Posten cartoons, and now this. Each time blood is shed we reaffirm our commitment to tolerance. Among champions of liberty and oracles of the 24 hour news there is much talk of freedom, and how great it is. But each time there is also talk of respect. And in the past week there has been much talk of respect. To the western ears soothed by political correctness the nebulous concept of respect is a soft and cuddly word. But if you listen to the context in which the word “respect” is employed, it becomes obvious that demands of respect can be a tempering force on tolerance and freedom of expression. That is, you are entitled to your opinion, as long as it is respectful of the opinions and beliefs of others.
But tolerance and respect are not on par with each other. Tolerance means that we allow others to express their thoughts – conversely we are free from constraint by others in expressing our thoughts. Respect means that we choose to constrain our thoughts and expression out of deference for someone. The former is a negative liberty. The latter is a personal choice. Tolerance is legislated and protected by the constitution. Respect, more often that not, cannot be imposed and has to be earned. One could even argue that an unquestionable, universal respect is intrinsically impossible without losing its meaning and becoming a platitude. If you give every participant in the race the gold medal, then what value will each of those medals have?
Most of the time western societies take this approach to respect. We respect intelligent opinions and we respect opinions of intelligent people. But the competitiveness of our society makes it a savage garden of ideas where no opinion is safe based on respect alone.
A folly of even the most eminent of sages will be exposed as folly if it cannot stand the test of criticism or experiment. Arguably this is the main driver behind technological and social progress – the willingness to challenge dogmas and to irreverently smash the idols that have outlived their eras. From the Founding Fathers to Silicon Valley, the liberty of having an opinion and the liberty to challenge someone else’s opinion have been the at the root of Western democratic success.
But there is one major exception to this. Religious opinion and belief have long been perversely exempt from most intelligent scrutiny. If I was to declare that the moon is made of cheese, I would be laughed at and proven wrong by experimental data. But if several thousand zealots were to profess their established religious belief that the moon and the whole of the universe have been made by the Great Cheese God, the mere fact that this would be an article of faith would entitle them to a degree of deference and respect.
Yes, I indulge in hyperbole, and the Great Cheese God has a long way before taking His rightful place in the modern pantheon, but is the Great Cheese God that much more absurd than a talking burning bush or a paradise populated by saucy virgins? No matter how ludicrous the dogma it should be treated with unquestioning reverence and respect. What is so special about religious belief that we are to give it such deference?
And even if we agree that articles of faith should be respected, this does not lead to the premise that these articles should also be followed. Many in the West may give deference to Islam’s dogmas, but few would agree to the imposition of such dogmas upon themselves and other kafirs. Yet is this not what all this discourse of “respect” is all about? That we abstain from doing things prohibited to Muslims because doing those things would be irrespectful to Muslims? That the laws of Koran – such as prohibition against images of the Prophet – be applied to everyone beyond the boundaries of Islam under this guise of respect? Anyone who lacks such respect ought to be prosecuted – either legally for “defamation of religion” or martially for grave sins against the Prophet.
In this context “respect” is a subversive tool that undermines the fundamental principles of liberty and intelligent scrutiny of ideas which define our society. This notion of “respect“ is founded on nothing but deference to an established tradition of superstition and dogma. We should not exempt religion from criticism simply because it is somehow different from other paradigms. And we most certainly should not exempt from criticism those religions that would oppress our society, crush our liberties, and spill our blood. If anything, these religions deserve the sharpest of our criticisms.