President Obama made news a while back when he announced that Guantanamo prisoners of the Muslim faith would not be force-fed during the daylight hours of Ramadan out of respect for their religious beliefs. How long, I wonder, will it be before our president gives the following speech so as to demonstrate his “respect”:
My fellow Americans, it has been brought to my attention that, when one of our brave rape and murder gangs infiltrated a household in rural Afghanistan this week, a Koran was accidentally soiled with the blood of a five-year-old child. This is unacceptable. I have, therefore, ordered all of our special rape and murder units to carry with them plastic sheeting when they are in the field. They can lay down this plastic sheeting before they bayonet the bodies of Afghani civilians, and thus prevent any holy books or items from being so foully desecrated. We respect the religion of Islam, and any American who tarnishes a Koran in the process of anally savaging an elderly widow or emptying a clip into an imam’s face will be punished for that act of religious desecration. We will not tolerate improper behavior on the part of our rape and murder squads.
In Race Defaced: Paradigms of Pessimism, Politics of Possibility (2012), Christopher Kyriakides and Rodolfo D. Torres document how post-World War II multicultural capitalism emphasizes the “equality of the mind” as a means of forestalling actual demands for economic equality—that is, achievement for a historically disadvantaged group now gets equated with representation in popular media, for example, rather than an actual part of the socioeconomic pie. Oh, sure, the main black/gay/Latino character in the new sitcom feels a little like progress, just like being Employee of the Month makes gives you a momentary illusion of satisfaction. However, increased representation in the public square of popular entertainment not-so-coincidentally occurs simultaneous with decreased representation in government and business. (But never mind about black poverty or the growing restrictions upon reproductive health—when is there going to be a black or female Doctor Who?)
The president’s “respect” for Islam is a bit like our “respect” for minorities or women—it is simply an elitist tactic for disguising the continued exploitation of people. Professing a respect for Islam allows us to continue to brutalize Muslims (who, by the way, may not all have the same relationship with their professed faith anyway, just like other religious adherents). During World War II, American authorities would apologize for museums they accidentally bombed, but not for the civilians they wantonly murdered in places like Dresden. In the novel Billiards at Half-Past Nine (1959) by Heinrich Böll, much ado is made over a beautiful abbey destroyed during the German retreat from Allied forces. Robert, the man responsible for the demolishing the abbey as part of German’s scorched-earth policy, is confronted by an American soldier who criticizes him for the abbey’s destruction, admonishing him: “In its way it was an historical and artistic monument of the first rank…. I may as well tell you that our commanding officer would have agreed to postpone the advance for two or even three days, rather than harm the abbey.” Why did Robert destroy this architectural marvel—one designed by his own father? “He had wanted to erect a monument of dust and rubble for those who had not been historical monuments and whom no one had thought to spare.”
Today, our government apologizes for damaged Korans but not for damaged people.
We have too much respect these days in our political discourse. This may seem a surprising observation, given that we live in a time when a good number of our elected representatives can barely refrain from using the n-word in reference to the president and regularly accuse their perceived opponents of treason. What I mean is that we have too much respect for things that aren’t human. A religion does not exist independent of humanity. Traditions do not exist without people to follow them or break from them. However, our political discourse regularly nods to these non-human entities so as to give the appearance of respecting their respective human practitioners. Just consider how the debate over providing contraceptive coverage hinged upon a point of Catholic dogma that ninety percent of Catholics disobey at some point in their lives; one can hardly be said to respect flesh-and-blood Catholics by fashioning policies in accord with the Catholic dogma they don’t really care about.
So let me deviate from our present political discourse. I do not respect your religion. I do not respect your political affiliation. I do not respect your culture or your traditions. I do not respect your parental philosophy or your taste in literature.
However, I do respect you. As a person. (That is perhaps as short as you can get any humanist creed.)
You may think that I am engaging in self-contradiction: “But I’m a religious person! You have to respect my religion if you want to respect me!” No, I don’t. Perhaps, for you, the belief that the angel Moroni once guided Joseph Smith to some gold plates buried in upstate New York gives your life some semblance of meaning at present. But what do you mean by asking me to respect your religious beliefs? Are you insisting that I believe like you do? If not, how, then, can I demonstrate any respect for something I do not believe is true? Maybe you expect me to engage in the willing suspension of disbelief with which we are supposed to approach fiction, in which I play along with the story while never accepting the story as true. I’m not sure that such would actually be respectful, despite it giving the appearance of such. After all, isn’t that how people treat children who prattle off about the glories of Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy?
Asking me to respect your religion is actually asking me to engage in an act of disrespect—treating you as incapable of dealing with disagreement. However, if I respect not your religion but rather you as a person, then I am committed to the support of your physical and mental integrity, as well as your capacity to think, choose, understand, and develop to your full potential. If I respect you as a person, then I cannot in good conscience support policies that violate that personhood.
I always come back to how Rebecca West, in The Meaning of Treason, defined the unforgivable sin: “It is perhaps to deal with people as if they were things: to pick them up and set them down, without respect for their uniqueness, for their own wills.” To treat another person like an object—that is something that our government does quite well these days. That is what happens when an institution has a surfeit of respect for ideologies and no respect for people whatsoever.