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.