Complicated

23 09 2008

Still workin’ on the question Lucretia asked, regarding respect/no respect.

Still workin’ on Rawls, for that matter. I paused to re-read Mary Ann Glendon’s Rights Talk, and I’m taking Chantal Mouffe’s The Return of the Political to Jobs1&2 tomorrow, but I don’t think any of these folk are going to get me where I need to go.

Why? The focus on procedure. ‘Here is how you set up a system of justice in a liberal society’ (Rawls); ‘we need to more nuanced understanding of rights vis-a-vis other values’ (Glendon). Neither is wrong, but neither gets to the guts of Lucretia’s question:

How do you deal with someone who can’t deal with you? That is, how do you deal with someone who won’t accept that you’re someone else? Who insists that you respect her but she won’t respect you? (I suppose the flip side of this question would be: How do you deal with someone who persists in error? Hm. More on that later?)

This is where I ended, last time (in the Ain’t no love post): I think I’m still missing a piece of a response to Lucretia. I’ve talked about a kind of constitutional or generic respect for persons, and about intimates, but what about those strangers or acquaintances with whom we interact in the social sphere? More acutely, what about those demands from citizens for respect for their views? Not generic persons, not friends, but fellow-travellers in the polity, in the social sphere? How do we meet demands for respect for mutually-exclusive beliefs? Ah. I thought I captured this in the idea of creating space against an overlord, but I didn’t: this is how we treat one another within that space. . . .It may be a matter of reiterating respect for you, but signalling disagreement with your beliefs. But I don’t think that’s sufficient, either.

It’s insufficient, I think, because respect is being overworked: I’m trying to stretch it to cover all of these different situations and levels, and it’s shredding. I gotta let it go. Yes, keep it at the procedural and constitutional levels, and even, perhaps, have it frame discussions, as a minimal condition for that discussion, but as to content: done.

This means, of course, that one may in fact not respect the other person’s views and, as a consequence, not respect the other person. That sounds harsh—it is harsh—but it gets at how we actually do respond to one another.

I think there’s a parallel to this in my reaction to ‘love-the-sinner/hate-the-sin’ argument: it seems a cop-out to pronounce one’s love even as one proclaims hatred for what the loved one does. It sounds simple to separate out who you are from what you do, but that sound is wrong. (I’ve gone too far in the other direction, hoping that doing could overcome being, but that’s another story.) We are beings who do, so even when it is possible to make such a separation, it’s rarely simple to, erm, do so.

Consider how you respond to someone who you truly do love who does something awful. Well, maybe just lousy: Your partner is arrested for drunk driving, say. You love this person, but you’re also angry that he behaved recklessly toward both himself and others. So what do you do with this love and anger? It depends: on you, on him, on his behavior after the arrest, whether he’s done this before, whether you’ve done this before, . . . Not simple, in other words. Even if you do get past it, you still have to get past it.

Now, to ratchet up the complications, consider behavior which is more intimately connected to being, say, sexuality (this is where the whole love/hate/sinner/sin missile often gets deployed). You’re gay or bisexual or ambisexual or just plain sexual. Sex is something you do, but your sexuality is also a part of who you are. Furthermore, you like both the act of sex and your sexuality generally, and are not inclined to see it as something in need of either fixing or redemption. If someone says she loves you but not what you do, do you feel particularly loved? Do you think this person even sees you?

This can be flipped around with regard to respect: If you demand that I respect you just for having an opinion, how likely is it that I’ll actually respect the content of that opinion? How much do you think I’ll respect you? In each case, the formula gets in the way of the person, and in so doing, cheapens both respect and love.

Thus, in cutting back on respect-talk, we may actually get to—have to—deal with one another as human beings. By allowing each other the, hmm, courtesy? understanding? recognition? that who we are and what we say and how we act matters, we may allow for a fuller sense of the other.

This fuller sense, of course, may only be possible in particular circumstances: namely, in a free society in which one person does not have authority over or able to invoke power structures against another. And there are other objections to this conclusion, as well, including that ‘may allow’ is a damned slender reed, and that I, too, am eliding content in favor of process—this time of understanding rather than respect.

It’s late, so I can’t offer a full defense, but I want to get this down before I lose these thoughts: One, yeah, ‘may allow’ ain’t much, but maybe that’s all we’ve got. In other words, Arendt’s admonitions on the frailty of human [political] affairs may be spot on. Two, I’m trying to incorporate content into the conversation, and to recognize when content overwhelms or matters more than conversation.

Sketchy, I know. But I think there’s something here.