“Plato and Aristotle, or Philosophy” by Lucca della Robbia, marble panel from Giotto’s Campanile, Duomo, Florence, now in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo (photo via Wikimedia Commons)

This essay, on the changing meanings of respect and tolerance, was my Observer column this week. (The column included also a short piece on the revelations at the Grenfell inquiry.) It was published on 13 December 2020, under the headline “Ideas can be tolerated without being respected. The distinction is key”.

Should Cambridge University academics and students “tolerate” or “respect” the views of others with which they might disagree? Should we tolerate Millwall fans booing players taking the knee? Should gender-critical feminists who argue for the importance of female biology and reproduction in defining a “woman” be tolerated, or are such views themselves intolerant of trans women?

These are all very different discussions and debates. Underlying all of them, however, is the question of how we should understand “tolerance” and “respect”, issues that run through virtually all “free speech” and “culture wars” discussions. Too often, though, we fail to recognise how far their meanings have changed in recent years.

Tolerance as a concept has a long history and many slippery meanings. But, from 17th-century debates about religious freedom to recent discussions about mass immigration, a key understanding of tolerance is the willingness to accept ideas or practices that we might despise or disagree with but recognise are important to others. These might include the right to practise a minority faith or to possess beliefs contrary to the social consensus.

Today, however, many regard tolerance not as the willingness to allow views that some may find offensive but the restraining of unacceptable views so as to protect people from being outraged. It’s an approach visible in everything from the claim that Charlie Hebdo should not publish cartoons offensive to Muslims to Twitter’s suspension last week of prominent Indian journalist Salil Tripathi for violating its “abusive behaviour policy” after he published a poem challenging Hindu nationalism. Regarding tolerance as the demand of those who might be offended, rather than as a permission for those who might offend is to turn the idea on its head.

The notion of “respect” is even more complex and multifaceted than that of tolerance. Originally, it was overlaid with a sense of deference, as something accorded to one’s superiors, a sense that still survives today. Respect also denotes merit; I respect a person or an act because I value them.

And then there is a meaning of respect that has become highly significant in modern, more egalitarian societies: as regard for other people as human beings, as an acknowledgment that every individual possesses an equal standing in the moral community. “Respect” and “tolerance” here are complementary notions, one tolerating ideas, but not necessarily respecting them, the other respecting the person as an equal being, whatever their religion, culture, race, gender or sexuality, but not necessarily their beliefs or acts.

But as with tolerance, this aspect of respect has also shifted in meaning. Many now demand that we should respect not just the individual but also his or her beliefs. “Since human beings are culturally embedded,” the political philosopher Bhikhu Parekh argues, so “equal respect for persons… entails respect for their cultures and ways of life”.

This conflation of people, cultures and beliefs is a dangerous move. It is what racists do in refusing, for example, to recognise the difference between criticism of Islam and hostility to Muslims. Drawing a distinction between people and ideas is essential both for the equal treatment of people and for the capacity to challenge and change ideas.

All of which explains why Cambridge University was right to tolerate differing ideas rather than being respectful of them. It explains, too, why we should tolerate the Millwall booing without indulging the boo-boys. Taking the knee is important to many footballers but it’s not a sacred cause that cannot be challenged. There is, however, a difference between the kinds of criticisms raised by QPR’s director of football, Les Ferdinand, who worries that it has become a ritual without meaning, and last week’s chorus of boos. To pretend that the booing had nothing to do with racism but was some kind of pushback against Marxism is to be blind to the context. One can tolerate something while also challenging it.

We should respect trans women and men as individuals, acknowledge the ways in which they identify themselves, recognise the hostility they face, and defend their right to equal treatment. We should equally recognise that many feminists identify what it is to be a woman differently, and that their arguments are important to hear, rather than being summarily dismissed as “transphobic”, and the debate closed down. Being tolerant of disagreement is not the same as being tolerant of hatred.

Tolerance and respect in their older meanings were notions crucial to the creation of more open, more egalitarian societies, and key to furthering the rights of minority groups, often denied their humanity, whether black people, women or transgender. They still are. We should not so easily discard such principles.


  1. Ian

    The Millwall fans applauded the anti racist shirts worn by the team in the next game plus the pre match joining up of players with an anti racist banner. Rightly or wrongly there is a disapproval amongst whole layers of white working class people of the term BLM & there is certainly an intense dislike of the BLM organisation as perceived as a radical & violent group up for a fight. How else do you expect fans to react?! Booing also took place at West Ham & Colchester. Yes it was an opportunity maybe for a racist minority there but I refer again to action at the next game. It’s a class thing & highlights that some messages don’t resonate outside of the liberal arena.

    • If it’s just “a class thing” and expresses “disapproval amongst whole layers of white working class people of the term BLM”, are you suggesting that only Millwall, West Ham and Colchester have “white working class” fans? That Liverpool or Southampton or Charlton or Crewe don’t? Or could it be that all clubs have working class fans, but in only handful did those fans boo the taking of the knee? And given that, does not the context of Millwall fans’ long history of racism matter? What Millwall fans may well have been applauding before the next match was not the “anti racist shirts worn by the team” but the fact that the players did not take the knee – that the club had responded to the booing by giving in to their wishes. As I wrote, you have to be blind to the context to pretend that the booing had nothing to do with racism.

      • Ian

        Talked ng of contexts, there is a wider context amongst white working class people with the view, rightly or wrongly of why do only Black Lives Matter? reflecting their life experience and history. Seriously are you not aware of this context? Millwall, just like West Ham reflect that history in the make up and history of their support. Along with a pride of being the ‘top firm’ in football the attitude of opposing to bending the knee to ‘some mob that takes to our streets graffiting statues’ is further reinforced. Again rightly or wrongly but racism isn’t the driving force. In fact Millwall fans once took on a mob of NF skinheads because they were another ‘ mouthy political mob’.Your ‘long history of racism’ is lazy & not particularly accurate. Many clubs had a bigger problem if you know your football. Of course there are documented histories such as the Guardian report of Millwall fans chanting sieg heil (was actually opposition Brighton fans chanting Seagulls) Or the widely reported small group chanting an anti Pakistani song, who were actually recorded, reported and stopped by many more Millwall fans, not so widely reported. Lazy. Of course there are still some racists at Millwall & elsewhere but to not acknowledge the antipathy to an action associated to a slogan created by condescending liberals with no thought ofhow to reach out and break down the barriers of an often conservative with a small c working class, is disappointing. I enjoy & agree with many of your articles but not this time!

        • In my response to your first comment, I pointed out that Millwall, West Ham and Colchester are not the only teams with “white working class” support. Every team has such support. So class is not an explanation, at least in any simplistic way. You have not addressed that point, and instead simply repeated your conflation of “white working class” with Millwall and West Ham supporters. As if, conveniently, white working class supporters of other clubs who applaud the taking of the knee are not really part of the white working class. “The white working class” is a meaningless term. It does not exist in the singular – there are many fractions and communities of working class people who are white, each with very different views, values and attitudes. And the working class contains non-white people too. Breaking the working class down by racial categories makes little sense except if you want to weaponise the idea of “the white working class” and pretend that only a certain group of people with a certain set of views are really “white working class” or, indeed, ‘working class”. It’s a convenient way of ignoring working class people who don’t fit your idea of what working class people should believe.

          You talk of “condescending liberals”. I don’t know if it’s liberal, but it’s certainly condescending to reduce “white working class” to the supporters of a couple of football clubs, and worse, to the racist fraction of that support. And, no, not all Millwall supporters, not even most Millwall supporters, are racist – in fact, many Millwall supporters are black. But there is a long, strong racist tradition, and not to acknowledge that in talking about the booing is indeed to be blind to the context.

  2. Such an important subject. I don’t agree with all you say dear Kenan, but would so much like the chance to discuss. Thanks for your columns across this year: engaging, enlightening and, maybe best of all, thought provoking. JVH

    • I’d be surprised if anyone agrees with all I say :-). But thanks for this, and hopefully we will get the chance to discuss, sometime in the post-Civid future.

  3. Jay Somasundaram

    Thanks. Yes, bot definitions, and the distinction between the individual and (their) ideas is important. A third important issue is “where does my nose begin and your fist end?”. Challenging an idea is active, possibly aggressive behavior. Perceptions of who owns the space and the nature of the invasion are situational characteristics that influence interpretation.

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