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Respect: Is it the glue a polarized nation needs?

Marquis Fulghum can get a little irritated with topics like tolerance.

“When someone says they will tolerate me, it invokes a negative idea or feeling, and I’m not thinking this person accepts who I am,” Mr. Fulghum said at a recent public discussion.

The former Marine won a scholarship for his criticism of tolerance. His prize-winning essay was for Tolerance Means Dialogue, a series of public discussions that seeks to foster respectful conversations.

Why We Wrote This

Respect is a core civic value to American democracy, but it can also be used as a tool of repression. As a fractured nation seeks to knit itself together, the ability to disagree yet not hate is seen as essential. This is part of the Monitor’s Respect Project.

And that was Mr. Fulghum’s point. Something deeper is necessary for meaningful conversations to take place, something beyond mere tolerance, he suggests.

“It’s asking yourself the relevant questions that allow you to introspect more, the questions that force you to be honest,” he says. “Am I accepting? Am I empathetic? Am I kind? Those words, they mean something. Kindness – different than nice. Accepting is much different than being tolerant. And being empathetic is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and being able to relate to how they feel.” 

What is the word for that transformative quality?

Today, the Monitor begins a series on respect, highlighting stories of how relationships can function – even thrive – despite fundamental disagreements. The hope is to offer glimpses of ways forward even as national conversation is polarized, sometimes to the point of critical dysfunction.

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Respect can be a difficult word, often used as a tool to protect inequity or injustice. In its deepest meanings, however, it is seen as an essential ingredient in the American experiment. Amid the nation’s political polarization and widening cultural divides are millions of Americans who have lost sight of each other, caught in reflexive rituals and simplistic clichés that dismiss, demonize, or otherwise delegitimize perceived enemies.

Respect is one vital way we heal and reestablish common civic ideals.

“Respect plays a central role in any meaningful project of civility,” says Alexandra Hudson, curator of the newsletter Civic Renaissance. “Civility today is often weaponized and trivialized, thrown at people who are not on the right political team if they breach a certain norm of good manners.”     

“But respect helps get at something a little bit richer and deeper,” says Ms. Hudson, author of “Against Politeness: Why Politeness Failed America and How Civility Can Save It.” “And I say both civility and respect are more of a disposition, a fundamental way of looking at the world and others as human beings first, more like us than not like us. It’s a way of reflecting on what that means for what we owe one another by virtue of our inherent dignity, our irreducible worth as human beings and as fellow members of the human community.” 

Seeing one another again

Its original Latin root, spectare, means “to see” or “to look.” To respect is, in some ways, “to see again,” or to look back and see each other with fresh eyes.

Respect is, in other ways, the cultivation of character-building values that undergird the democratic process.

“You need strong, healthy, spiritually morally grounded conditions for civility to really work,” said philosopher and political activist Cornel West at an April panel discussion titled, “Does Civility Still Matter?” “If everybody’s going in with massive distrust and contempt, then you’re not going to get any civility; you’re not going to get integrity, honesty, spreading joy, bearing witness to love. And when you do see it, it is going to be alien.”

In the past, ideals of respect were rooted in notions of “soulcraft,” or the cultivation of personal virtues that would inform the political policy of “statecraft,” many historians note. The pursuit of narrow interests that benefit a person or particular community is always a powerful force in politics. But respect is a foundation for the stated goals in the preamble to the U.S. Constitution – a conscious effort to form a more perfect union, ensure domestic tranquility, and promote the general welfare.

Respect as democratic glue

Sometimes this kind of respect is modeled in public friendships, like the 1980s ties between House Speaker Tip O’Neill and President Ronald Reagan, who despite being in different political parties shared a deep personal fondness and would call each other to offer congratulations when the other won a bruising legislative battle. The late Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, judicial rivals at opposite ends of the spectrum, maintained a deep friendship, a love for opera, and would even vacation together – and then issue scathing critiques of each other’s reasoning in court opinions.

Public gestures, too, play a role in this kind of civic-minded respect. Then-President George W. Bush spoke up for American Muslims after 9/11, noting how the tenets of Islam bring peace and solace to billions. “In our anger and emotion, our fellow Americans must treat each other with respect,” he said in a much-noted speech. Over this past year, some police officers made a simple gesture of respect during protests over the murder of George Floyd, taking a knee amid such civic pain and turmoil. 

“Abolitionists from Frederick Douglass to William Lloyd Garrison and Martin Luther King Jr. were civil, but hardly polite,” says Ms. Hudson. “That is because politeness often smooths over important issues when, in the case of slavery and racial segregation, we obviously needed something more.” 

“The duty we each have is to learn from these examples in our past, to be aware of this tendency in the human condition, and combat this temptation by sacrificing for our fellow citizens and persons in our everyday,” she says. “It matters for both personal happiness and human flourishing, helping us better get along specifically in a democracy with limited government, in a republic like our own.”

Respect as a tool of oppression

But respect and civility have also been used to oppress and maintain the status quo.

“It’s clear that the concept of civility throughout American history has not been used for the cause of liberation or social justice, but instead for the cause of reactionaries who use it specifically against these causes,” says Alex Zamalin, professor of political science and director of the African American studies program at the University of Detroit Mercy.

Before the Civil War, pro-slavery politicians like Sen. John C. Calhoun of South Carolina denounced the abolitionist movement for fomenting hatred against the South. Their charge: Abolitionists were breaching stabilizing norms of civility and respect. 

“This is one of the first times in the 19th century when civility becomes a rhetorical weapon for a political end, and that was not to call for greater inclusion, but to demonize abolitionists as tearing the nation apart,” says Professor Zamalin, author of “Against Civility: The Hidden Racism in Our Obsession With Civility.”

The civil rights movement wrestled with this dual nature of respect.

On one hand, the nonviolent principles of Dr. King were rooted in an explicit and religiously based conception of love that expressed one radical form of respect. 

“We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive,” Dr. King said in one of his sermons. “He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.”

Yet when Dr. King was in prison in 1963, charged with violating the ban that Birmingham, Alabama, placed on his protests, he famously wrote an open letter to white clergymen, who were questioning his methods. “He told them the greatest threat to Black freedom is not the klansman; it’s the white moderate who can bask in and use the language of civility while allowing the status quo to continue to dominate and inflict suffering upon people of color,” Professor Zamalin says. 

The need to refresh

The need, says political commentator Andrew Sullivan, is for a fresh commitment to the bedrock principles of liberal democracies, including an abiding respect for the inherent dignity and absolute worth of every human being. 

“It’s my profound worry about this, that we don’t see each other as individuals,” Mr. Sullivan said during the April panel discussion on civility. “We see each other as avatars of a race or an identity or as something threatening to us, as opposed to another human being.”

“There’s no leavening; there’s no sense that, yes, despite these differences – and they are real, and we have to account for them, and we do understand they’ve affected us – but they’re not the end, and they’re not the only thing and we can transcend them,” he said.

The ideals of respect and civility are important, he and others say, because they naturally root out self-interest and individual entitlement.

Those ideals are yet to be realized for many groups that have been historically marginalized and oppressed. Respect comes in the ability of people of color and others to enter the public sphere and engage in civic debates as their full-throated selves – not compelled to shape their public identities to suit the majority, Dr. West said in the April discussion. 

Citing a line from Walt Whitman’s “Democratic Vistas,” he said the goal was for disenfranchised people in America to be able “to stand and start without humiliation, and equal with rest.” And this can have benefits for all.

“That’s the conception of integrity,” he added. “What does it mean to be fully yourself and to bring all of who you are into a public space? Of course you’re going to disagree, of course you’re going to contend, of course you’re going to clash. But you feel as if you can do that in such a way that you can be transformed, and you can transform others.”

“My identity was lost”

It is this sense of integrity that makes mere tolerance insufficient, Mr. Fulghum says.

He enlisted in the Marines thinking it might help him escape the prejudices of the outside world. Yet even as he did this, he worked to erase any hints of the cultural stereotypes often assigned to Black men in American society.

“Near the end of my enlistment, I learned that none of it mattered and my identity was lost,” he wrote in his essay. “I’d tolerated the ignorant rhetoric hoping people would see me as an individual, and not part of a monolith. My idea to change their minds backfired and I spent a year angry at myself. I compromised my identity by depriving myself of things I used to enjoy and changing mannerisms that were unique to me. What’s worse is that I alienated myself from the Black community.” 

Today, as an undergraduate studying psychology at Arizona State University, he says notions of tolerance and civility have created classrooms in which students simply mask their deeper selves.

“Schools impede students’ abilities to have those conversations when we make everything this super, super nice environment,” Mr. Fulghum says. “That’s an overcorrection. You need conflict, you need friction, you need vigorous debate and disagreement to make progress.”

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Cultivating the ability to have these kinds of conversations is how a much deeper form of respect is forged, he says. 

“It can’t be that you go into a conversation with this passiveness, this smile that says, OK, everything’s fine,” he adds. “It’s necessary for students to engage with each other and just as necessary for their emotions to come out, and I think through that we develop an understanding with each other.”

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