Respecfully agree to disagree
March 15, 2010 10:06 PM   Subscribe

Can one truly respect an opinion that s/he disagrees with on a profound level?

In learned, polite circles, we learn to agree to disagree, and respect the other's opinion even if we don't share it.

But is this really possible? One can of course respect the rights of others to express themselves regardless of what that opinion is (freedom of speech), one can accept that people have different preferences ("I think 'Jersey Shore' is a brilliant program" is really a statement of preference, not an opinion), one can certainly be civil with others that they disagree with, and one can even respect the person who holds an opposing point of view.

But that's not what I'm talking about. Can a pro-abortion rights activist, for example, respect the opinion that women should not have this right? Or a libertarian respect a royalist's political beliefs?

My specific questions are:

-If you think that it is possible, can you give me examples of opinions that one may profoundly disagree with, but can still respect? This can be personal, second-hand, from literature, whatever. And simply saying "I disagree with this, but respect it too" doesn't really help - please explain why.

-If you don't believe that it's possible, what of the people who believe it is possible? Are they fooling themselves? Do they have a different definition of "respect" than you do? Are they confusing what they're actually respecting?

Please help me think this through!
posted by war wrath of wraith to Religion & Philosophy (52 answers total) 92 users marked this as a favorite
What you're really giving respect to is another person's capability to come to an opinion.

If my friend were to say "look, Fiasco, I've given it a lot of thought, I've talked to many people about it, and I've done many years reading about the movement. I'm thoroughly committed to Fascism as a political doctrine, and I believe that the future of the State is a racially pure society, perpetually at war with its enemies, led by a strong authoritarian leader", I could—with difficulty—respect the process that led to the opinion. Hey, it's the same way I got my political beliefs.

But Fascism is still a perniciously evil doctrine, and my friend would still be a goddamn racist.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 10:17 PM on March 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've always thought "I respect your opinion" meant "I respect your right to have that opinion and your sincerity in holding it, and so I will not mock or denigrate it as though professing it makes you stupid or inferior to me and my opinion."

I may (and often do) disagree, but I will assume you hold your opinion in good faith.
posted by sallybrown at 10:18 PM on March 15, 2010 [24 favorites]


I'm a monarchist, for very specific reasons. I respect the beliefs of my republican compatriots. In this case, I even agree with a lot of their arguments - in the final analysis, though, we disagree. It doesn't make them (or me!) bad people.
posted by pompomtom at 10:19 PM on March 15, 2010

Can a pro-abortion rights activist, for example, respect the opinion that women should not have this right?

Yes. I submit myself as anecdotal proof. That particular issue comes down to how you define life, which is a subjective judgement: If you believe life begins at conception, then abortion is murder. Makes perfect sense to me, I just don't happen to agree with the premise.

And as a programmer, I have the urge to add parentheses to clarify pro-(abortion rights) in everyday English.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 10:20 PM on March 15, 2010 [5 favorites]

You don't have to respect someone's opinion to respect the person who has it.
posted by lhude sing cuccu at 10:26 PM on March 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

I can't respect an opinion that does harm, hurts people, takes rights away from them, etc.
posted by amethysts at 10:28 PM on March 15, 2010 [5 favorites]

I am an atheist. I have Christian friends whose beliefs I respect. There's no chance whatever that I will convert, or that they will. But that has nothing to do with it. They are intelligent, thoughtful people who happen to have different axioms than I do.

It is not written that you must detest everyone who disagrees with you.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:28 PM on March 15, 2010 [24 favorites]

Hi! You may remember me from such threads as "Your belief in a god is equivalent to a belief in Santa" and "You don't think money makes you happy? Do you have very much?"

Seriously, though, yes. Absolutely. And I am *not* one of those people who thinks that respect is owed rather than earned. I don't think every opinion deserves equal respect, and yes, as much as we don't like to admit it, that can translate into more or less respect for the person holding it however hard we try to compartmentalize our feelings about the belief and the believer.

For me, it has everything to do with why the person believes what they do. Did they adopt their point of view having thought through various possibilities, or is it something they haven't given much thought? Can they defend their opinion on rational grounds? This doesn't mean we need to agree; it just means that starting from their set of premises, I can trace a reasonable route from A to Z. It means we have something to talk about.

What I have equal disrespect for are people who have adopted positions without thinking them through. They can't tell you why they believe what they believe. These are the sorts most likely to make excuses for this fact. "Oh, if you heard so-and-so explain it you'd understand" I say equal disrespect because it doesn't matter whether they agree with me or not. It's a coin toss, not a reasoned point of view.

You've chosen some difficult examples, though, I have to admit. You can follow a pro-life POV from its premises to its conclusion and it's a rational path. This is why people like to try to catch them out in some other way -- if they really believed in saving souls, they'd be all for abortion -- no chance to sin, etc.. But a fair appraisal leaves you simply realizing you've started from different premises and can't possibly reconcile that. But that's a kind of respect, isn't it? I rarely see as much admitted on the blue on that topic -- that the conclusion follows from the, admittedly otherworldly, premises.

Of course this is all reasoning out a response. What you are effectively asking about are feelings. Feelings for people who you believe hold an intrinsically inferior position, perhaps on something important. And the way we deal with those is that we care about those people. That they mean more to us than their opinions, at least on a few things. That's why we're not quite as aggressive on some of these issues as we could be -- because we have an aunt or uncle or mom and dad or sister or brother who believes it and is a person worth caring about. (Of course this is why some people strike out twice as hard against proxies for these people, too)

Long answer I'm afraid but good question.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 10:29 PM on March 15, 2010 [9 favorites]

The points about opinions founded in good faith on different premises apply here, but I think the practical determinant here is the extent to which one considers the opinions of others actively pernicious to one's own happiness/welfare/freedom, or particularly to the freedom to hold contrary opinions. Thus Jefferson: "it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." However well-grounded it might be, it's difficult to respect an opinion that demeans you or undermines your rights -- which challenges your own self-respect.

There's a long, detailed piece in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on the concept of respect and its permutations: I link there because the question got me thinking that there's probably a small library's worth of moral and political philosophy on the topic.
posted by holgate at 10:45 PM on March 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

Respecting someone's opinion does not necessarily mean that you agree with the end of their argument (in your case, the pro-choicer doesn't have to respect the pro-lifer's decision to vote anti-abortion). However, it does mean that you listen to their argument, and comprehend the logical steps involved. In many cases, respecting someone's argument leads to learning from their style, or details of their argument.

The first thing that comes to my mind is Sartre and Kierkegaard. Sartre was an avid atheist, whereas Kierkegaard spilled a lot of ink over how one should follow Christ. Sartre by no means agreed with the end of Kierkegaard's book 'Sickness unto Death' (which basically says that faith in Christ alleviates Despair); but he did draw from Kierkegaard's description of the Self in order to write his book 'Being and Nothingness.'

Basically, respect != agreement.
posted by chicago2penn at 10:55 PM on March 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I actually got paid to do this.

For three years (from 1996 to 1999) I worked as a Public Information and Consultation Advisor for the Federal Treaty Negotiation Office in British Columbia. It was essentially my job to talk to angry and racist non-native people about the land claims settlements we, the federal government, were negotiating with First Nations.

One thing that helped me do this job was a story I heard Utah Phillips tell at the 1997 Vancouver Folk Music Festival. Seems one day he was told of an old cowboy in New Mexico who was dying. This old cowboy had ridden on some of the last cattle drives on the Great Plains in the 1800s and had scores of songs in his head about that time. Utah made an effort to go visit him on his death bed way out in the desert. When he got to the cowboy's cabin, a nurse answered the door, said he was expected and asked him to wait in the sitting room while she got the cowboy ready for the visitor.

The cowboy was an avid reader and had many hundreds of books. As he was waiting Utah scanned the shelves and saw what was what. He was surprised and shocked to see tract after tract from the John Birch Society, a virulent right wing political movement that clashed deeply with Utah's own hard left politics. Utah reflected on the predicament he was in. Here was this cowboy full of all of these songs, and there was this irresolvable political gap between them.

But thinking on it more, Utah realized that the REASON the cowboy had so many political books is that he didn't actually KNOW much about politics. In fact if he were to ask the old man about politics, he knew the old man would only give him lies, stuff that he didn't believe but that was recited out of the books. Utah Phillips noted that there was not one book on cowboys or cowboy music on the book shelves, and that's what Utah was there for. He entered the bedroom of the dying cowboy and passed a lovely day trading songs and stories of the cattle drives of the 19th century.

In conclusion Utah said "You know, if you talk to people about what they know, they will always tell you the truth."

That line stayed with me as I ventured in cowboy country shortly afterwards. I was meeting with a group of loggers and ranchers in Williams Lake, in the interior of British Columbia and they were a hard crew. Every month we met and every month they told me that they didn't want any land claims settlements with the "goddamn Indians" in their area. One guy, a man I'll call Bob used to go on and on about "you can't make deals with Indians, they can't be trusted, they're no good with their word..." That sort of thing.

Now I am Aboriginal myself, and this rankled after a while. But keeping Utah's words in mind I challenged Bob one day and said, "Bob, you know, I'm Indian and I'm trustworthy and you can make deals with me. I know for a fact that what you're saying is bullshit. It's lies. So I'm not going to ask you about Indians anymore. Instead I'm going to talk to you about something you do know about, and that is logging. Why don't you take me out to see your operation?"

Bob agreed and the next day I met him at 5:00am with a thermos of coffee and a box of Tim Hortons and we climbed into his F350 and headed out into the Cariboo Mountains. We drove for two hours and the whole time we talked about logging and what it's like being in the business, what kind of markest he was trying to develop, and how much he loved his new machinery He talked about his new feller-buncher like he was a dad with a newborn. Gone was the intransigent racist and here beside me was an interesting man, telling me the truth about what he loved.

When we got out to the cut block where his crew was working, he radioed them in and they came down to get coffee and donuts. Of the 12 guys he had working for him, six were First Nations. I laughed when I met them and asked them if they knew Bob's opinions on the trustworthiness of Indians. "Oh yeah," One of them laughed. "He's an old blowhard!"

But Bob countered by saying that THESE guys were great, that they had been with him for coming on 20 years. THEY were different.

We laughed. Really hard. We talked for a while about what THESE guys felt about land claims and they all had different opinions. Respect arose in the space of nuance and reflection.

So many people parrot opinions. In fact opinions are so often just a front for something else, the yawning abyss of ignorance. Very few people hold fixed opinions about things that matter deeply to them. Instead the hold nuanced and thoughtful interests. That's not to say that I wouldn't claw your eyes out if you hurt my child, but that's different from having an opinion on Tiger Woods or abortion or whether or not Obama is doing a good job. Most of us aren't Tiger, a pregnant woman facing a choice or the President. Most opinions are shallow, and the holder of them guards their superficiality with outrage and emotion to prevent you from getting close and discovering nuance. People hold opinons out of fear or loyalty. But when it comes to something you really care about, it's less about an opinion and more about the nuanced, many layered, complex fabric of knowledge, practical, theoretical, aspirational and emotional

From that day on, I never again talked to Bob about First Nations people, but he became a very involved person in our advisory committee because he had a piece of his heart staked in the process. I came to respect him very much, even though he continued to blow hard against my rookie colleagues and say stupid racist things that somewhere he must have believed. He did it just to put them off guard, to protect his own vulnerabilities and mask his fear. I came to respect what lay beneath the opinion, which was a real fear that land claims would ruin his logging operation. I dismissed the racism but respected Bob and what was really at stake for him. And I think he came to respect me too.

It was the best job I ever had.
posted by salishsea at 11:04 PM on March 15, 2010 [1027 favorites]

Belief in the supernatural (i.e. Gods/religion/etc) I respect.

I'll still make cracks about it but I respect it.

Most well informed belief is fairly easy to respect.
posted by sien at 11:23 PM on March 15, 2010

I don't respect opinions that are wrong.

But I can respect the person who holds them, for many reasons already offered here. There's also the problem that I am not infallible myself. Not yet anyway. Maybe once I get that sorted, I can be more resolute in my condemnation of all WRONG thinking.
posted by philip-random at 11:25 PM on March 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

I don't think this makes sense semantically. As you say you can respect a person, you can understand and appreciate their reasons for believing something, but I don't know that you can "respect" an opinion. That doesn't parse as meaning anything to me. You either agree or disagree.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:48 PM on March 15, 2010

"I respect your opinion" meant "I respect your right to have that opinion and your sincerity in holding it, and so I will not mock or denigrate it as though professing it makes you stupid or inferior to me and my opinion."

Exactly this. Its about being confident enough in a democratic society to respect your fellow citizen's right to hold an opinion in good faith.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:55 PM on March 15, 2010

Yes, I believe it's possible. A nice illustration can be found in the introduction to the chapter on faith in Obama's The Audacity of Hope.

"Two days after I won the Democratic nomination in my U.S. senate race, i received an email from a doctor at the University of Chicago Medical School.

"Congratulations on your overwhelming and inspiring primary win," the doctor wrote. "I was happy to vote for you, and I will tell you that I am seriously considering voting for you in the general election. I write to express my concerns that may, in the end, prevent me from supporting you."

The doctor described himself as a Christian who understood his commitments to be comprehensive and "totalizing." His faith led him to strongly oppose abortion and gay marriage, but he said his faith also led him to question the idolatry of the free market and the quick resort to militarism that seemed to characterize much of President Bush's foreign policy.

The reason the doctor was considering voting for my opponent was not my position on abortion as such. Rather, he had read an entry that my campaign had posted on my website, suggesting that I would fight "right-wing ideologues who want to take away a woman's right to choose." He went on to write: "Whatever your convictions, if you truly believe that those who oppose abortion are all ideologues driven by perverse desires to inflict suffering on women, then you, in my judgment, are not fair-minded. ... I do not ask at this point that you oppose abortion, only that you speak about this issue in fair-minded words."

I checked my website and found the offending words. They were not my own; my staff had posted them to summarize my pro-choice position during the Democratic primary, at a time when some of my opponents were questioning my commitment to protect Roe v. Wade. Within the bubble of Democratic Party politics, this was standard boilerplate, designed to fire up the base. The notion of engaging the other side on the issue was pointless, the argument went; any ambiguity on the issue implied weakness.

Rereading the doctor's letter, though, I felt a pang of shame. Yes, I thought, there were those in the antiabortion movement for whom I had no sympathy, those who jostled or blocked women who were entering clinics; those who bullied and intimidated and occasionally resorted to violence. But those antiabortion protesters weren't the ones who occasionally appeared at my campaign rallies. The ones I encountered usually showed up in the smaller communities that we visited, their expressions weary but determined as they stood in silent vigil outside whatever building in which the rally was taking place, their handmade signs or banners held before them like shields. They didn't yell or try to disrupt our events, although they still made my staff jumpy. The first time a group of protesters showed up, my advance team went on red alert; five minutes before my arrival at the meeting hall, they called the car I was in and suggested that I slip in through the rear entrance to avoid a confrontation.

"I don't want to go through the back," I told the staffer driving me. "Tell them we're coming through the front." We turned into the library parking lot and saw seven or eight protesters gathered along a fence: several older women and what looked to be a family—a man and woman with two young children. I got out of the car, walked up to the group, and introduced myself. The man shook my hand hesitantly and told me his name. He looked to be about my age, in jeans, a plaid shirt, and a St. Louis Cardinals cap. His wife shook my hand as well, but the older women kept their distance. The children, maybe 9 or 10 years old, stared at me with undisguised curiosity.

"You folks want to come inside?" I asked.
"No, thank you," the man said. He handed me a pamphlet. "Mr. Obama, I want you to know that I agree with a lot of what you have to say." "I appreciate that."
"And I know you're a Christian, with a family of your own."
"That's true."
"So how can you support murdering babies?"

I told him I understood his position but had to disagree with it. I explained my belief that few women made the decision to terminate a pregnancy casually; that any pregnant woman felt the full force of the moral issues involved and wrestled with her conscience when making that decision; that I feared a ban on abortion would force women to seek unsafe abortions, as they had once done in this country. I suggested that perhaps we could agree on ways to reduce the number of women who felt the need to have abortions in the first place.

The man listened politely and then pointed to statistics on the pamphlet listing the number of unborn children that, according to him, were sacrificed every year. After a few minutes, I said I had to go inside to greet my supporters and asked again if the group wanted to come in. Again the man declined. As I turned to go, his wife called out to me.
"I will pray for you," she said. "I pray that you have a change of heart."

Neither my mind nor my heart changed that day, nor did they in the days to come. But I did have that family in mind as I wrote back to the doctor and thanked him for his email. The next day, I had the language on my website changed to state in clear but simple terms my pro-choice position. And that night, before I went to bed, I said a prayer of my own—that I might extend the same presumption of good faith to others that the doctor had extended to me."
posted by inconsequentialist at 12:16 AM on March 16, 2010 [37 favorites]

Yes one can. I do all the time. This does not mean that I respect all opinions I disagree with, but I can see virtue in many opposing options.
posted by fifilaru at 12:17 AM on March 16, 2010

salishsea's comment was wonderful, but this really stood out for me:

"In fact opinions are so often just a front for something else, the yawning abyss of ignorance."

That's something that the most rationalist of people would do well to sit back and remember: that it applies as much to them as it does to everybody else.

Opinions are just beliefs, with maybe a bit more foundation behind them.
posted by Pinback at 12:42 AM on March 16, 2010 [4 favorites]

To me, the issue is mostly about having too much respect for your own beliefs. It's very easy to see the flaws in another person's idiotic viewpoint, but this should make you realize that this means you are also (potentially) that idiot to someone else.

Respect is often secretly condescending, so I think it's better to take a slightly different approach. Rather than respecting your opinion as well as my own, to disrespect my opinion in the same degree that I disrespect yours. I think we critically reflect on others' mistaken ideas more than our own--we should include ours too.
posted by AlsoMike at 12:57 AM on March 16, 2010 [3 favorites]

>In learned, polite circles, we learn to agree to disagree, and respect the other's opinion even if we don't share it.

The "polite circle" came to us as a way to allow people to share and develop knowledge and culture. That way, you can throw around idiotic ideas and see what happens, but in the end, your actions are what speak. Thus people in polite circles tend to hold persuaders in high esteem.

People who are impolite are considered more likely to interrupt expressions of opinion with furor, surprise, feigned confusion, etc. People who are impolite don't respect persuaders so much as they respect tyrants who will impose their will. This raises the stakes of any conversation considerably, and almost universally stunts the development of shared knowledge, culture, technology, and so on. The persuaders become too scared to speak up, lest their theories be turned into sound bites and cartoons before they are half understood.

You also mention respecting opinion, and while I think that sounds noble, I don't think that if my opinion is "No on Proposition 671," your brain should be telling you, "You should respect the opinion that Proposition 671 is bad."

I would lean toward respecting, or at least giving more benefit to, the opinion-holder rather than the opinion. Let him have the grace of time to change his opinion. Verify before you bring it up a second time, even if days have passed.

You might read Scaramouche for a perspective based on a similarly turbulent time. We all want to develop these specific rules about ourselves, our thoughts, conduct, etc., but often are frustrated by the fact that a simple set of principles may be all we really need.
posted by circular at 12:57 AM on March 16, 2010 [4 favorites]

Some people have opinions that are diametrically opposed to my own. I have no respect for those opinions as free-floating things in their own right; I think they're rubbish. But that doesn't stop me from respecting some of the people who hold those opinions, and nor does it necessarily stop me respecting the process by which they came to hold them.

If two people hold diametrically opposed opinions on a common subject, this generally shows one of two things: that they haven't thought their opinions through and simply hold them as matters of faith, or that they're starting from different assumed truths or attach different priorities to their values.

We're all different, and we've all had different experiences, and I would personally find it quite disturbing to find myself apparently agreeing with another person on every single opinion we tested. As long as you're capable of identifying the assumptions underlying your opinions and giving some kind of account of why you think those assumptions are justifiable, and can show me how your opinion derives from those assumptions via some short and non-fallacious chain of reasoning, I'll respect the fact that you hold a given opinion even if from my point of view it appears to be complete bollocks.

That doesn't mean I won't oppose you politically. It does mean that if you give me reason to believe your opinions are something you've thought about, I will attempt to do so in a way that doesn't denigrate you or write you off as a nong.
posted by flabdablet at 1:06 AM on March 16, 2010 [3 favorites]

I don't believe we really have a definition of respect. It's like trying define love.

Like love, respect is part action, part emotion. That is, there are signs of respect and disrespect. But these gestures are social conventions that not only vary across cultures, but also are subject to change, misinterpretation, even subversion. The truth of respect is in your heart and soul. Either you feel it or don't.

All this said, can one love an opinion? Is it possible to love an opinion in an of itself, in its abstract state, divorced from any and all opinion bearers?

Conversely, what would it mean to despise an idea? Is this utterance merely being metaphorical or facetious?
posted by polymodus at 1:55 AM on March 16, 2010

war wrath of wraith: “... one can certainly be civil with others that they disagree with, and one can even respect the person who holds an opposing point of view. ¶ But that's not what I'm talking about. Can a pro-abortion rights activist, for example, respect the opinion that women should not have this right? Or a libertarian respect a royalist's political beliefs?”

Yes, I believe this is possible. I have met people who are able to turn around, at the end of the day, and say to other themselves: 'I disagree strongly with Bob's opinion that James Blunt is a genius, but I respect that opinion. It's just an opinion, after all, and who's to say that mine is better in the final analysis?' It's clear that it's possible to convince oneself that opinions all deserve equal weight when we observe the tendency in US news broadcasts to emphasize all sides of every story and to poll the viewers to ask what they think. Only one of the opinions can usually be true, but that doesn't matter to us; we just want to make sure everybody's represented.

An interesting thing to notice: when we stop caring about truth and decide that affording everyone equal respect to their opinions is more important, we obviously don't stop believing that our opinions are correct. Instead, we either (a) stop believing that everyone else is capable of comprehending the truth, or we (b) stop really caring. Either way, it's clear that when we respect all opinions equally, we're disrespecting the people who hold them.
posted by koeselitz at 2:14 AM on March 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

In my opinion, a lot of human beliefs stem from feelings rather than logic. Even when people can defend their opinion logically, the logic often seems to be an after-the-fact construction to support the feelings.

For example: I support abortion, and I'm pretty certain this derives from the fact that I have more empathy for the suffering of unwanted children and their mothers than I do for fetuses. So I can very easily imagine someone feeling the other way around about it, and who am I to say they are wrong?

Crucially, though, that wouldn't stop me campaigning against abortion bans or accompanying people to clinics, if that were necessary where I live (luckily it isn't). For that matter, the arguments of people who empathise with fetuses might persuade me to start campaigning for better sex education and increased access to contraception.

In fact, the number of extremely intelligent people I know with different beliefs to mine (fundamentalist Christians, for example) makes me wonder whether belief is partly genetic. Maybe I was born without the faith gene... in which case again, who am I to say that the beliefs of people with faith are wrong?
posted by emilyw at 3:53 AM on March 16, 2010

If I can understand how a person came to the opinion they hold, and it shows a thought process based on a) the experiences that person has had and b) the information they were given, I can respect their holding that opinion.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:25 AM on March 16, 2010

This is why I actually really like Mike Huckabee (especially his interviews on the Daily Show, which I think show both him and Jon Stewart at their best). I think he's very thoughtful and has arrived at most of his opinions -- on abortion, gay marriage, and other social issues -- in a genuinely thoughtful way. When he debates people, he's calm, but holds very strongly to his convictions and he's consistent about his beliefs and can explain them in many different ways. Now, granted, he has a totally different philosophical starting point than me, so I totally disagree with him. However, I respect the opinions he holds.

Compare this to, say, Sarah Palin, whom I believe is parroting talking points someone told her and who has never demonstrated to me the way in which she has arrived at her beliefs and ideals -- she just shouts them at me. Those opinions I respect less, even though many of them overlap with Huckabee's.

So maybe it's more respecting the person than the opinions themselves. But it is certainly possible, even if a little grudging.
posted by olinerd at 4:26 AM on March 16, 2010 [4 favorites]

"It is not written that you must detest everyone who disagrees with you." This comment by Chocolate Pickle belongs in the sidebar, and the FAQ as well. I can't favorite this enough.
posted by DWRoelands at 4:33 AM on March 16, 2010

Well, this comes down to: Why do other people believe things that are untrue?

There are four reasons:

They are ignorant.

They are stupid.

They are crazy.

They are lying.

Humans usually content themselves with these, because humans are smug bastards.

Of course, all this depends on the premise that all people can come to a universal understanding of truth. I'm not sure this is true; I'm a somewhat skeptical and cynical person, and always have been; I'm never going to see the world the same way a more generous-minded, sentimental person would. Similarly, when evaluating the different outcomes people arrive at in life, I tend to be most struck by the importance of external factors, rather than internal factors. This is part of the reason I'm moderately liberal, politically speaking; the changes I tend to desire to see are large scale changes in society which can help alter the circumstances of many people. Other people do not see things this way, and I think this too is a matter of temperament.

We flatter ourselves when we decide that all our opinions are rational, and everybody else's opinions irrational.
posted by Diablevert at 4:46 AM on March 16, 2010 [4 favorites]

Best answer: What many of the answers, and even your question, seem to be missing is that human beings are not infallible.

For some reason, when the topic of the Pope comes up, people gleefully point out that he's not infallible, but people then turn around and assume their opinions must be right -- that there's no possible way to resolve a set of conflicting interests aside from the way you've chosen to resolve them.

Why would you think this? Why would you be so sure that you've succeeded in reasoning thoroughly about a problem? Why would you dismiss the possibility that someone you're inclined to disagree with actually knows more about a topic than you do?

For instance, the above comment -- "I can't respect an opinion that does harm, hurts people, takes rights away from them, etc." -- is impossible to maintain consistently. Every one of us has opinions that harm people, hurt people, take rights away from them, etc. There are complicated issues with pros and cons on both side, and sometimes all you can do is balance them.

It's hard to talk about this without specific content, so I'll give a couple controversial examples; I'm not trying to start a flame war over those, but I've specifically chosen to defend positions most people here probably disagree with.

If you read in a liberal newspaper that many researchers (including opponents of the death penalty) have concluded that the death penalty saves lives, then you have a dilemma and you have to do some balancing of relevant concerns. You can say the research is wrong, but how do you know? People who have studied it much more closely than you have disagree with you. And your opinion about that empirical question is ideologically slanted. For instance, I'm always hearing death-penalty opponents citing the fact that non-death-penalty states have lower murder rates, but they don't seem to have considered that this is a straightforward statistical fallacy. And they never cite the nationwide statistics that are available from when the death penalty was briefly abolished nationwide and murder rates went up.

If the research is right, then there's a balance between the lives and rights of people on death row, and the lives and rights of potential murder victims. Now, you might have a good-sounding argument for why one of those clearly trumps the other, but how much have you scrutinized whether your position really makes sense? If you come down on the side of caring more about inmates, is that because we can put specific names and faces to them, but potential murder victims are just "hypothetical"? Well, no person is really "hypothetical" -- there will eventually be real murder victims; it's just that you personally don't have the ability to look them in the eye, so it's easy for you to dismiss them. But just because it's easy to ignore a group of people doesn't mean they should be ignored. By the way, that group of victims is disproportionately black, but somehow their race is rarely mentioned in these debates. Yet only the death penalty is criticized as racist; why shouldn't opposition to the death penalty be criticized as racist if it will lead to more black murder victims?

You ask:

Can a pro-abortion rights activist, for example, respect the opinion that women should not have this right?

Yes, easily. This describes me.

In order to do a minimally adequate job of thinking about the abortion issue, everyone, no matter what their political leanings, should realize a couple major concerns: (1) many pregnant women did not intend to become pregnant and want to abort the baby; (2) a fetus is a living thing that looks kind of like a baby and actually is a potential baby.

So, once you've listed those 2 concerns and noticed that they're at odds with each other, the next question in a rational analysis is to ask which should trump the other. I strongly believe, and I'm sure most people on this website believe, that #1 should trump #2. But I understand that there are other people who believe #2 should trump #1.

Now, it's still easy to disrespect the abortion-rights opponents, if you want to. If you want to make their motivations sound as bad as possible, you can claim to read their minds and say: "But what they really want to do is to oppress women!" But that's not a very good argument, since you don't know that and it's based on a self-serving assumption that your opponent is in bad faith. Or you can try to deny their claim and say: "But fetuses don't matter at all! They're just tissue!" Well, why not be as critical of your own views as you are of others'? How do you know that fetuses don't matter? Would you really be wiling to apply this uniformly? Wouldn't that be a bit arbitrary? Why does a 9-month-old fetus not matter but a 1-day-old baby does?

Again, I'm not trying to resolve the abortion issue here, but my point is that, as with the death penalty example, the key concept is balancing relevant concerns. Once you see it this way, it becomes harder to disrespect an opinion just because someone has balanced the concerns in the opposite direction than you have.

In contrast would be same-sex marriage, where I don't see any reasonable argument for being against it. When I try to think of the best argument that's commonly made -- e.g., "tradition" -- it falls flat upon scrutiny -- e.g., "tradition" would justify continuing almost any discrimination from the past. So I'm not claiming to respect all opinions that disagree with mine. But in the interest of having a civil society and productive debates, it's important to do so when possible.
posted by Jaltcoh at 4:55 AM on March 16, 2010 [13 favorites]

I think for me it comes down a lot more to respecting the person than the idea.

If someone is able to thoughtfully and carefully articulate their reasons for believing something that I think is bullshit, I'm a lot more likely to come down on the side of 'respect your opinion'. But that is, as much as anything else, because I respect people who are thoughtful and careful in holding opinions.

I like to think I find more of them on what I'd regard as 'my side of the line' -- liberal, secular, tolerant -- but I'm not sure that's really true. I'm more likely to accept as thoughtful and careful an argument I already agree with, and I don't associate with that many people from the other side, so I'm not sure the ones I do know are a representative sample.
posted by jacquilynne at 6:01 AM on March 16, 2010

I'm not going to claim this is universally true, but I have found that in many cases, the inability to respect a differing opinion is the hallmark of small-mindedness, no matter how "enlightened" or well reasoned their position is. It is often a sign that the person came to their opinion not by reasoning and free thought, but because they heard a person or group say it and they wanted to identify with that person/group.

Abortion is a great example of that. It takes very, very little to come to the heart of the conflict and realize that there's not (and some would argue, cannot be) a "correct" answer. Once you're there, being able to respect the other side (and their opinions) should be easy.
posted by toomuchpete at 6:59 AM on March 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

A thing that helped me with this was doing some reading projects on political issues, and making an effort to read across the spectrum, from a variety of viewpoints and opinions. This made it really clear that informed people of good will can, in good faith, form different opinions on things. (It also left me sort of confused about where I stand on a lot of issues, but there you go). This makes it harder to assume that the person who disagrees with you about what welfare or assistance to the poor should look like, to take one example, is necessarily a heartless, racist bastard.

This process has actually made it harder for me to respect the opinions of some people who agree with me, because it's clear to me they get their information either from superficial sources like broadcast news, or from biased sources, that they decided to be, say, a liberal long ago and haven't given it another thought since, and only take in information and opinion from liberal sources that reinforce their opinions. These people tend to see themselves as "unbiased" so they think anything that agrees with them is also unbiased. Um, no.

One thing that can help with respecting others' really different opinions is to listen to thoughtful people (not ranting idiots) and pay attention to what their concerns are. For instance, I know one or two people who are strongly pro-life, and their concerns really are deeply felt compassion for babies, and for women, whom they believe are harmed by abortion itself and who suffer in a system where abortion is so available that it gives men one more reason not to take responsibility for their sexual actions and their consequences.

I'm not pro-life, but when I hear one of these people talk about their position, I hear their compassion, I hear their grief and pain, I hear their heartfelt wish for good outcomes for crisis pregnancies. I am not likely to become pro-life in this lifetime, but these are certainly people I can respect.
posted by not that girl at 7:04 AM on March 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Can one truly respect an opinion

One doesn't respect opinions. One respects the opinion of [fill in here].
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 7:28 AM on March 16, 2010

Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not all opinions are equal. Some are formed on sound logic and thorough insight. Others are based on bullshit.
posted by BeaverTerror at 7:57 AM on March 16, 2010

When I disagree with someone, in order to maintain same level of respect I'd like them to show me, I try to think back on how my own worldview and opinions have changed over time... with the same substrate of "facts" taking on new meanings for me as circumstances change and I grow.

Seeing how I legitimately have held different positions than I do now, makes it easy to accept and respect that someone else disagrees with me. It has the added benefit of reinforcing, for me, the fact that it is possible to communicate, learn, and change... Sometimes I am convinced, sometimes I am convincing and sometimes neither of us are ready to budge... But that's the process: confronting difference and respecting it enough to look for some understanding.
posted by ServSci at 8:00 AM on March 16, 2010

Sometimes this is simply acknowledging that you don't know absolutely every thing in the universe. Yes, your opinion is well informed and well considered, but sometimes we get additional information or experiences or maturity that change our opinions. Respecting someone's opinion acknowledges that other people might know something or have considered something that you didn't.
posted by 26.2 at 8:26 AM on March 16, 2010

"We must respect the other fellow's religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart." -- Mencken
posted by callmejay at 8:40 AM on March 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

Respecting someone's opinion acknowledges that other people might know something or have considered something that you didn't.

Or, that they simply are not you, and have not had the same experiences you had -- experiences that would understandably lead you to each value different things.

For instance: my own high school years were saved by my school's music program, but there were plenty of kids who were similarly saved by the bilingual education program. Now -- ask either one of us whether our alma mater should cut music or bilingual education, and you're gonna get two different answers -- because we're two different people. We're never going to agree or see eye-to-eye on the importance of music education in schools -- but I can completely understand why my rival values something else instead, so I respect that she disagrees.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:42 AM on March 16, 2010

I took a debate class in high-school. Most of the semester-long class centered around single-issue, hour-long, two-vs.-two debates. What was interesting was that each group of four people debated their assigned topic twice, about a month apart, switching sides between the two debates.

My group debated abolition of capital punishment. Prior to the debates, I was a supporter of capital punishment. Being forced, in one of the two debates, to try to come up with the best possible arguments against capital punishment was what eventually led me to change my mind and oppose the death penalty. (Not overnight; it's not like I got out of the debate where my team argued the anti-capital-punishment side and immediately said, "oh, how wrong I've been all these years!" But it was the beginning of an intellectual journey which eventually led to me changing my mind.)

So, if you're interested in respecting a particular opposing opinion, play devil's advocate [yes, eponysterical] for a while and try to come up with the best possible arguments for the opposing side. That may take a bit of digging—there are legitimate conservative concerns about health care reform, not just the shrill "OMG death panels!" lies—but it may take some work to find and understand the strong arguments among all the easily-refuted ones.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:55 AM on March 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

No, you can't-- but it is a matter of definition. "Respect" does not always mean "esteem". There are more attributes to a relationship than whether or not you hold their judgement or moral priorities in esteem. When you are told to respect those you disagree with, that is interpersonal politics. It means it is not effective to overshadow your entire relationship, based on diminished esteem on one issue.

When a pro-lifer claims I as a pro-choicer support murder, but then claims to respect my position, I do not believe they really respect support for murder. I think that person has more diplomacy than principles.
posted by matt_arnold at 10:26 AM on March 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I slept over this.

Respectfully agreeing to disagree (a) is not the same as
Respecting an opposing opinion (b).
(a) is a shared act of toleration based on a generic sense of mutual respect. This is in spite of conflicting views being held. On the other hand, (b) is a positive feeling of value or worth towards a belief that, for whatever reason--emotional or intellectual; rational or irrational--you hold to be false.

Note that (b) requires more than mere toleration; by definition, respect requires a "positive" feeling, if if the respect is of the "grudging" kind. However (b) does not require specific actions such as "stepping into their shoes", "trying to understand better", or "playing Devil's advocate"; all of these are signs of respect, but are not necessary to have respect.

So do you see that (a) and (b) are not quite the same thing. In (a), ideas are being tolerated. Its not clear at all what is being respected, there is just a general sense of shared, personal respect. Whereas in (b), ideas are being appreciated. But in both (a) and (b), there is some cognitive dissonance: you already believe one thing while also allowing--in thought, feeling, or action--a contradicting thing. This tends to be an uncomfortable state that is not easy to sustain in the long run. In (a), it could be something as simple/strategic as declining to get into a debate about something. In (b), it could be a sense of appreciation of a friend's, say, religious experience, even though you yourself are atheist. Are we on the same page about the contrasts and similarities of these two (overly used, casual) phrases?

I... respect... the varied and unique anecdotes that people are telling, but it nags me that only a handful of posts try to explicitly address the semantics of the OP's question. Without a clear starting question, it's hard to get focused answers.

I also came across some usages of "respecting the opinion of the Court", but I would suggest that's more a specialized/lawerese usage of the phrase.
posted by polymodus at 11:11 AM on March 16, 2010

"When a pro-lifer claims I as a pro-choicer support murder, but then claims to respect my position, I do not believe they really respect support for murder. I think that person has more diplomacy than principles."

Exactly. Classic sophistry. They are lying and misusing the phrase, whether they realize it or not.
posted by polymodus at 11:18 AM on March 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

This is a good essential question, one I struggle with a lot of the time myself. And while this isn't always satisfactory for me, this is the closest to a key I've found: empathy.

I said the following once in my diary and I think it's what I'm trying to get at here; it was a side note to something I'd mentioned earlier:
*I should point out that I HAVE evolved from this position the older I've gotten. Not because I caved and believe in any sort of essentialist bullshit--I doubt I ever will--but because I take a more pragmatic/"functionalist" approach to gender asymmetry, similar to my final response to religion. People come to the table with different experiences, experiences that reify/reinforce difference in a feedback loop. And it would be a little too idealistic for me to want to willfully ignore or pretend this is not so, or assume decent people easily overcome this.

Sometimes the only thing that keeps me able to solidly respect a position (I mean in the way you're alluding to, not just given polite superficial niceties) I in no way could ever take seriously otherwise is to remind myself everyone has had a different life than me, has had a lifetime of experiences that shaped who they are and what they believe. And likewise, they haven't had my experiences either. That to me is the most solid, genuine-feeling way to get to a point of respect in other people's choices and viewpoints.
posted by ifjuly at 12:19 PM on March 16, 2010

...and often "I respect you opinion" isn't a statement about what you think or feel about the other person's opinion, but how you promise to act about it. I.e. "I respect your opnion. I will not belittle it, or try to argue you out of it or yammer on about it." Additionally, the way it's often used is to end a discussion that would otherwise lead to hurt feelings and drama. "I respect your right to have a different opinion than mine. The End. Let's have a beer."
posted by Omnomnom at 3:26 PM on March 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

I was once on a mailing list with a man who had very, very different views about a situation than I did. (Israel / Palestine, and the actual meat of the disagreement isn't very important to this.) While he would gladly discuss his opinions, he wouldn't actually debate them; he would answer every charged question by saying "I don't think that you and I have enough background and experience in common to be able to productively discuss this issue." That, to me, was a really respectful way of bowing out of the debate and allowing differing opinions to exist without tacitly accepting them. I've used similar language in my own life, since then, and I've always found it to be helpful. (The caveat is that you have to use it to AVOID a fight, not to win one.)
posted by KathrynT at 3:36 PM on March 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It doesn't seem like many people answering actually respect the opinions they are claiming to respect. They still think the person with different opinions is ignorant or has a poor value system. I think Metafilter the internet is not a great place about respecting other opinions.

To me, actually respecting another opinion basically means that, with slightly different starting axioms, with slightly different cut-offs, you can come to the same exact opinion. Its something that people rarely do, because they need to actually have a logic to their beliefs, which most people don't.

Read anything by, say, Peter Singer. He's philosopher/ethicist who seems to try his best to work though what fundamental axioms drive his beliefs. He ends up coming to some pretty uncomfortable conclusions, which no one else seems to agree with. However, you can completely respect his opinions because he lays out exactly what his starting parameters are. You can point exactly to whatever starting point and say: Oh, that non-offensive belief is where we differ, which eventually lets him support infanticide. We should stop arguing about infanticide itself and focus on those upstream differences.

People debating abortion or religion or whatever are often arguing about conclusions many times removed from the fundamental axioms on which they actually disagree. They don't even know how to respect others opinions because they've never really tested the margins of their own beliefs. Most people do not have a coherent system of beliefs, everyone thinks they have the common sense.

To truly respect an opinion, you need to be able to honestly answer the question: What is the smallest change in my system of beliefs I need to make in order to agree with this person? When you can answer that honestly, and still feel like the same person with that change, you will respect the other opinion.
posted by FuManchu at 3:41 PM on March 16, 2010 [7 favorites]

I'm going to say yes, and give a testimony

I'm pro-life, I don't believe abortions are really the right thing to do. But I respect the idea that women should have control over what they do with themselves. And in respecting that, I'm utterly against any pro-life legislation. I respect the other opinion enough to say that mine should not be imposed upon anyone.
posted by shesaysgo at 5:25 PM on March 16, 2010 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you, Metafilter. What started out as a logical, partially linguistic question has turned into something much more. The critical thinkers came out in full force, and my assumptions have been rightfully challenged.

I did want to focus on the opinion -- not the person, not the process, not the comportment, nor the circumstances. A handful of you got that, and addressed it beautifully. Even those who didn't, made me question the very idea.

Those of you whose answers I've marked as best, I thank you truly for considering my question deeply, and understanding the true essence of what confused/troubled me. Well, thanks everybody! Truly. This is a thread I will re-visit time and again.
posted by war wrath of wraith at 9:54 PM on March 16, 2010 [3 favorites]

Wow salishsea, that was one of the most intelligent and profound things I have seen on MeFi in a long time.
posted by caddis at 4:41 AM on March 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

I always translate "Let's just agree to disagree" as "Oh, what does it really matter?"

Which is to say, it's for little things that aren't worth arguing about.

It's totally okay to not respect an opinion--or a person holding fast to an opinion--that you fundamentally disagree with. To do so would cheapen your respect for people worth respecting.
posted by Sys Rq at 12:29 PM on March 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yes, it's quite possible to agree to disagree, and respect the differing opinion.

But, what most of the responses seem to miss is that anyone who says "we should agree to disagree" is either trying to wiggle out of an argument (sometimes for good reason!), or they're just plain being a dick, and believe in some fairytale that's not going to stand up to a strong wind.
posted by talldean at 8:32 PM on March 26, 2010

Wow, salishsea's comment is a treasure I feel privileged to have read.

Excellent question and amazing answer.
posted by nickyskye at 7:31 PM on January 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

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