Why I...think respect is more important than tolerance

August 18, 2000

Years ago, after the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, I was invited to a panel in California with a number of gang leaders and politicians. I was struck by how much the word "respect" was used in an intercultural context. Korean shopkeepers, for instance, had been beaten up because they had not shown blacks or Hispanics "respect". The term comes up all the time, in our human rights culture, where we talk about "respect for rights". It comes up, too, in what is called "the politics of recognition", where minorities demand respect for their cultures, religion or sexuality.

I also noticed that the notion of respect was doing different work from the concept of tolerance. In the programme I have made for Radio 4, Analysis: A Question of Respect, I did not have the space to explore this, but I think tolerance came out of a tradition where liberalism was an ascendant ideology - where a sense of cultural homogeneity and the "common good" was assumed. Class divisions and gender differences certainly introduced the problems of inequality and powerlessness, but these social disjunctures were bounded by a workable horizon of consensus.

By contrast, national communities are now increasingly constituted in and through minorities who want to claim their distinctiveness and make claims on the state that may be in conflict with what is considered, by the majority, to be the national interest.

The word "respect" has a greater relevance for populations that see themselves as part of a multicultural redefinition of society, where the myth of a level playing field between groups does not apply. The term respect is concerned with everyday interactions and conversations and the slow building of opinion. The question of respect insists that we pay attention to the need for ethical and just conditions of dialogue as part of the ongoing process of political judgement and choice. A respectful dialogue between individuals or groups must be accompanied by a just redistribution of resources and freedom.

It did strike me that the term "respect" connects with the informal aspects of the public sphere. Communities, political campaigns, the interface between the university and the wider public, journalism and media - it is these sectors that are particularly susceptible to the expression of conflicting demands and interests and therefore most in need of "respectful" political dialogues.

Of course, at times the discourse of respect is used to co-opt minorities or buy cheap concessions. But, equally, "respect" describes the contemporary situation of a polity defined by its recognition of social differences. We have to create a civil society that takes responsibility, with respect, for what one of my interviewees called "sharp and intelligent rowing" in the process of democratic dialogue.

* Interview by John Davies

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