Democratic Attitudes: Respect

In the model of the European Council, Respect is defined as “an attitude towards someone (or some”thing”, like nature) who we believe to have some kind of importance, worth or value, which again warrants our positive regard and esteem.”

In the context of a culture of democracy, respect for the intrinsic dignity, equality and the inalienable human right to choose their own cultural affiliations, beliefs, opinions or practices different from our own is considered especially important.” They are pretty clear about it: without this respect, it will not be possible to facilitate democratic interaction or intercultural dialogue.

However, showing respect in this way does not imply we have to minimize or ignore the actual difference. We are also not required to agree with, adopt or convert to that different opinion or practice. Furthermore, the EC emphasizes that “certain limits do need to be placed on respect“: “respect should not be accorded to the contents of beliefs and opinions, or to lifestyles and practices, which undermine or violate human dignity, human rights or freedoms of others.”

So, when we encounter a belief or practice that undermines human dignity, human rights or freedoms of others, we are not expected to judge this belief or practice to have some kind of importance, worth or value that warrants our positive regard and esteem. As an example: female genital mutilation is a violation of human dignity and human rights. I do not need to show respect for this practice. Doing so would violate the democratic value of human rights and show little democratic competence. One could argue that cultural diversity is also a democratic value, so this “different cultural practice” towards women needs to be “respected”, but the value of human rights outranks cultural diversity.
Another viral example right now in the U.S. would be demanding tolerance for “humiliation” in speaking and writing under the presumption that this is protected under the right to “free speech”. However, humiliation is an offence against human dignity. This type of practice is not covered under the “right to free speech.”

Many argue that living in a democracy means that we need to tolerate certain “unpleasant” behaviours, especially public figures. This demand for tolerance hides the tendency to simply patronising others into enduring or putting up with something that we would prefer not to endure. And this “something” is typically the result of some kind of disrespect towards somebody.

For a culture of democracy, respect reflects better what is required than tolerance.

Respect is based on the recognition of the dignity, human rights, and freedoms of the other and a relationship of equality between the participants. There seems to be a curious connection between tolerance and respect. The less capable or willing people are of showing respect for dignity, equality and human rights, the more tolerance everybody needs for enduring unpleasant circumstances. So, in a democracy, the more we learn how to show genuine respect for others’ dignity, equality and human rights, the less tolerance we need for unpleasant circumstances. To get there, we need to learn how to show zero respect for disrespectful attitudes and behaviours. Sounds like quite the paradox…

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