The Highest Form of Respect

In the ongoing tussle of competing ideas, be they on the axes of conservative/liberal, theist/atheist, secular/theocratic, capitalist/socialist, the word respect, or commentary on the pronounced lack of it, is bandied about a lot in this internet age.

I’ve not minced my words on this blog – an oft-used quote, attributed to Evelyn Beatrice Hall┬áin her biography of Voltaire, sums up my position.

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”

A frequent reflex defence of, say, Christian apologists, is that criticism of their position is an attempt to silence them. This is of course nonsense – free speech in the secular West guarantees both their right to public opinions just as it guarantees the right to criticise them. To curb the former is totalitarianism, to curb the latter is enforcement of blasphemy.

Similarly, apologists will claim a lack of respect in criticism. Sometimes this is true, but if the discussion can remain civil, I would counter that the critic is paying them the highest form of respect i.e.

I can think of no higher compliment, than to care about someone’s opinion enough to want to change it if you think it wrong.

Similarly, it is a form of disrespect to stay silent, either because you do not care what they think, or because you think they do not have the capacity to take criticism without hurt or upset.

This does not mean everyone I disagree with is worthy of respect – in the arguments I’ve had with die-hard fundamentalists, who lack any pretence of rational thinking, I’m not trying to change their minds – it isn’t possible. I’m trying to expose to onlookers just how irrational, insane and amoral their position is, in the hope they will steer a different course, and perhaps become active themselves in opposing such madness.

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