On respect, and whether Errol Naidoo is a fool

I’ve previously argued that people deserve respect, rather than the ideas that they might hold. Intuitively, this seems relatively uncontroversial, in that there seems no reason to respect the point of view that the Earth is 600 years old, or that the folk wisdom of superstitious folk from centuries ago should guide our lives in the 21st-Century. But note that to say people rather than ideas deserve respect doesn’t necessarily mean that all people deserve respect. It’s entirely possible that the totality of what you know about a person indicates that their confusions or malice run so deep that it’s difficult to find anything good to say about them.

This still wouldn’t preclude certain forms of respect for that person. You would still want to hear what they had to say, and attempt to judge it objectively – not only do people change, but they could also surprise you by revealing things you didn’t know, or hadn’t thought important. As much as efficiency demands that we apply a discount to the expected value of what certain people say, to blindly assume that they are always wrong, and not worth paying attention to, is an arrogance that might lead us into complacency and error.

However, this does not stop certain people from (generally) making little sense. How do we describe these people? In the case of Errol Naidoo, I described him as a ‘fool’ when Tweeting a link to a Sunday Times interview with him regarding his call to boycott e-TV for their screenings of Naked News. Regular readers of Synapses would be aware of Naidoo’s homophobia, his knee-jerk moral hysteria founded on (very) selective evidence, his contribution to the threats directed at students involved in the 2009 Sax Appeal controversy, and so forth. Read the Sunday Times interview for yourself: does he appear to be someone who is weighing evidence objectively, and looking for the root causes of social ills? Or does he appear to be a myopic moral reactionary, guided by missionary zeal to always allow his values to determine what the rest of the country is allowed to watch, and do?

I’m happy to call him a fool, because that’s a useful summary of a person who generally holds foolish views. Yes, according to me – and of course I might be wrong. And a commitment to treating people with respect would mean that I should be open to contrary evidence, whereby he might indicate that he is someone worth listening to on some subjects. I have not seen any such evidence to date, and this is why I’m comfortable calling him a fool.

Other self-identified skeptics disagree, though, apparently of the view that everyone merits respect, even those “whose actions and beliefs disgust me”. What would “respect” mean in a statement like that, beyond what I’ve conceded (being open to contrary evidence)? Not calling them names like “fool”? Tolerance has its bounds, and some of those bounds are perfectly legitimate. Consider Mengistu – should we simply critique his arguments, or are we allowed to call him a callous thug, or a madman? There are plenty of examples of characters like him, where some sort of summary term – which could well be abusive – fits their characters and motivations perfectly. Does “respect” entail never using these terms?

Of course, one can misuse terms of abuse. That is a separate argument, which would require my being corrected regarding the evidence that I think merits describing Naidoo as a fool. The possibility of mis-applying such terms does not mean it’s impermissible to ever use them, though. The appeal for such restraint is motivated by tolerance and openness to correction, and these are often good things. But they are also often the sorts of motivations underlying claims to refrain from judgement. But we need to make judgements, so as to be able to say that racism, sexism, genocide, female genital mutilation and so forth are wrong.

The real question is whether our judgements are sound or not. Determining whether they are requires us to subject them to scrutiny – not to avoid making them. A version of “tolerance” or “respect” that forbids us from saying that illiberal and homophobic men – camouflaged by the piety of religion – are fools is one that puts us on a slippery slope to not being able to make any judgements at all – and this is a version of respect that we should have no part of.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.