Morality Religion

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.

5 replies on “On respect, and whether Errol Naidoo is a fool”

Nothing to add here, except that I think this makes perfect sense.

I tend to use “cretin” rather than “fool”. It has a satisfying crunch to it, like an apple.

But it’s an insensitive epithet, since “cretin” technically denotes someone handicapped due to a thyroid deficiency, as well as — secondarily — someone who is a fool. As such, it echoes somewhat the misuse of “gay” to mean uncool or ‘lame’ (there’s another), e.g. “dude, that was so gay”, which is understandably offensive to gay people.

Thanks Patrick. Your mention of ‘cretin’ does remind me of something I neglected to say in the post – ‘fool’ is also quite a mild insult, so I really don’t think the bar on using it should be at all high.

It’s a difficult one in the sense that when we resort to name-calling it often seems as if the conversation / debate ends, becoming of no value to anyone. If I call you a fool you might be able to react to that in a level-headed or even humorous way, simply because of your own maturity, but we all have our own weaknesses. Not all people can react level-headedly in these situations.

What I’m trying to say is I think it’s good to stay away from calling someone a fool as much as possible, to keep the conversation going at least and make it valuable, and to prevent them or me from needing to get defensive.

But, on the other hand, I agree with you that the lack of this kind of interaction leads to us never making any judgements at all, which is not helping things to move forward as very few people seem to have an opinion these days. It makes much of the conversation pretty lame and not of value to anyone when no one is really keen to go out on a limb and claim exactly what they think of someone’s beliefs or actions or them themselves.

Perhaps the best thing to do is to call someone ‘foolISH’, which kind of means not only their ideology is seen to be daft but also the person themselves is acting foolishly. So we’re judging their beliefs and their actions but still not saying they are a complete fool (they may be unfoolish in other areas, after all). I tend to like to stick to this. After all, I think Naidoo acted foolishly in the interview (and also think the interviewer did, but that’s for another conversation). But is Naidoo a complete and utter fool? I don’t know, I’ve never met the man.

Eish. The self-identified sceptic with a ‘c’ only stumbled upon this post late last night…

Ryan, I like the very important distinction you made — people whom we’re so quick to call ‘idiots’ might very well act rather rationally in many other areas of their lives.

I wonder how many people recognise this distinction exists.

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