Food for Thought

Is Real Respect Possible?


In a recent post, Dan Sockle wrote, “Thus, the goal of bringing focus to America’s struggle, with our identity and our values, is to increasingly engage in the sharing of ideas and resources that might one day turn the tide on the divisive rhetoric of the day that leads to fear, hatred and conflict.” I think an important aspect of engaging and sharing of ideas and resources is respect. Real respect. 

As the Director of the Centre for Interfaith & Cultural Dialogue at Griffith University, I have long pondered on the idea of respect in the work that I do. I speak about respect quite often and respect is the most commonly expressed desire in the many dialogues and disputes with which I work. I frequently say that the ultimate object of my work in interfaith dialogue is respect between different parties, individuals, communities. I say that the purpose of the principles for cross-cultural collaboration that I teach are to establish an environment of respect so that the ‘other’ will be willing to share their differences, with the objective of using those differences as resources for unique solutions. 

But is it really possible to have respect for another who is different from you? In particular, is it possible to respect someone who believes differently from you? Take, for example, the experience I had earlier this year. I was working in northern Burkina Faso, training a group of religious and traditional leaders from the Sahel on conflict resolution skills. I was the only Christian present in the training, either as participant or trainer. After a few days, one of the participants approached me with a desire that I convert to Islam. We had a frank, friendly discussion on some fundamental differences between our faiths and why, because of these, I would not accept his invitation to convert. 

This is a relatively uncommon example of an encounter between incompatible differences, but it illustrates the challenge in the question posed above. Is it really possible to have respect for another who believes differently from you? In my opinion, it is possible to respect in this situation, but that it is rarer and more precious than I originally thought. I say this is possible because I genuinely feel I have respect for others. One source of my respect for some is that I recognise in them the same sincerity and faith and conviction that I have to certain things in my life, like my religion and my family. Thus, while I don’t understand how they can believe what they believe when it is clearly opposing that which I sincerely and with conviction hold to be true, I can at least understand their conviction, sincerity, faith and, therefore, respect them. 

But then I must ask myself, is the respect I have for them as individuals, or does it also include their group/culture/religion? In other words, do I have respect for their culture or religion, which is so different from mine and which contains elements with which I do not agree or even strongly disagree? It is perhaps easier to respect an individual, because we can always find those we like and to whom we can relate in any culture or religion. We can identify certain traits that we find respectable, like sincerity, honesty, faith. And thus, despite the fact that they believe in things that we don’t, we can understand and humanise/personalise this difference. 

I think the answer to this last question is, “Yes.” And for me the respect doesn’t come from a theoretical, abstract investigation of another culture or religion, however interesting and invigorating this is to me. The respect comes through getting to know and understand individual representatives of that group and then can spread to the broader group overall. 

Perhaps that is the crux of the discussion, which becomes the focus of my work. Respect and understanding are developed through individuals speaking of and living their beliefs, not by hiding them from others. 

This is a slightly revised version of a previously published post on the Peace and Collaborative Development site here.

Categories: Food for Thought

2 replies »

  1. During my year in Iraq, attempting to “build and repair bridges across ethnic and religious divides,” I came to believe that every human interaction needs to begin with a sincere effort to establish and build mutual understanding and respect. You will see this in our website’s “Rules of Engagement.” An experienced mediator and trainer once observed that virtually everyone has had one or more incidents in their life where their personal dignity was aggrieved at some level, some very deep. This influences their (our) ability to interact with others by the degree to which our defenses are up when dealing with others and, in particular, the extent to which we might let our guard down and extend any level of trust. Yes, respect and dignity are key components in preventing or resolving conflict.

  2. Understanding another culture, as any Anthropologist will tell you, doesn’t mean you have to approve of it. There are many aspects of other cultures, cultures that I have studied and know, in some ways, better than my own, many aspects or ideas or practices that I understand but don’t approve of. Everything from headhunting to consuming song birds to “honor killings”. I don’t approve, but, in the case of Islam, for example, I can respect another persons spirituality and sincerity.
    The problem is that most people just reject another world view without ever trying to understand the whys and wherefores of another culture, another worldview.
    As an anthropologist I had to fortify myself against criticisms of my beliefs, my attitudes, etc etc. I had to learn, as certainly all anthropologists must, to respect other views, to let them exist providing that they didn’t encroach on or attempt to destroy the beliefs, the very lives,, of others.
    Understanding, not necessarily approval.

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