On Some Qualities of Respect

Philip Catton on respect - and what New Zealand lacks.

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I argued with my father recently. 

To my dad, I defended the law that allows same-sex couples to marry. In particular, I defended the new normalising of procreation and adoption by such couples. Dad did not agree with my confidence. He debated whether society has been improved by this law change.

The issue that Dad and I discussed was to neither of us personally immediate.. Instead it crystallised how we saw the contemporary social fabric and how we imagined the social fabric of the future. Even now I cannot mentally return to this conversation without my wanting to tell my side in it. The way that younger people have reshaped social attitudes impresses me, and I wanted my father to share in that positive appreciation.

I believe that I showed respect for my dad precisely by my caring about what my dad thinks. Dad for his part did very much care to listen and to discuss, and this has always been the case. In my childhood, the culture of the dinner table was to articulate the reasons behind respective opinions whenever disagreement could be identified. My siblings and my mother and my father and I all debated points of view. Yet maturity increases the scope of considerations that can be brought to such discussion.

I am 58, and Dad was, when we were debating this together, 88. For the two of us together to identify a disagreement, and then to test it together by reasoned disputation, required maturity. I was in no mature position respectfully to disagree with my father when I was 5.

The general discussion that I mention was not concluded in a sitting and was not resolved, yet, when, of a sudden, my dad died.

In Dad’s last moments he had by his side my mother (to whom he was more than 65 years married). Also present and rushed to his side to help was my aunt, who is his younger sister and who is a retired medical doctor. All that could be done to save my dad, was.

Ten minutes after Dad died, I along with many other family members arrived to him, all unaware of any calamity. We were to have gathered everyone that morning onto a boat called the Monarch, for a sailing to the headlands of the Otago Peninsula, to see there young albatrosses learning to fly. Instead we fell to quite different duties.

In the days that followed, the frank and passionate discussions between my dad and me were still fresh. I wondered some, whether I was mistaken to have pressed on in critical discussion with him, during three or four of the final one hundred hours of his life. Yet my answer is No, I did not err: my father’s and my reasoning together, however passionately, about opposed convictions was (in both directions) the essence of respect.

Some reasoning that supports my position developed during the eighteenth century. Thinkers of the Enlightenment maintained not only that to argue together requires maturity; they also maintained that to shrink from arguing is simply immature. Dare to reason, was the motto of that period. And ultimately that very motto diminished the moral authority of religious clerics over private individuals, redefined kings as servants of the people, and ushered in a kind of shift in political arrangements towards the modern institutions of democracy.

The new thought was that people had been living since time immemorial — and in diminishing degree, still were living even then — in a condition of self-imposed immaturity. People needed to awake to democracy. Democracy would impose on every individual serious responsibility, namely, an obligation concerning the intellect.

This responsibility was to reason with others openly and unapologetically and with pride in one’s own reason and with humility before reason. Enlightenment thinking embodied (among other convictions) that, for democracy to be possible, the State’s own first responsibility is to help the reasoning powers of individual citizens to grow.

The State’s own first responsibility is to help the reasoning powers of individual citizens to grow.

Is New Zealand in its current nationhood square with these values? The values that define the Enlightenment came from before our own nationhood had even started. They were produced by courageous intellection, but scarcely by courageous intellection here.

Our sense of what these values are and how they matter is possibly blurry in this circumstance. Even so, New Zealand has, at times, set quite a fine example of being a democracy. Many facets of our cultural fabric contribute to this. How are we managing, now? The answer is doubtless very mixed.

Today’s young people mostly find new ways of putting their minds together in reflection, as well as new ways of creatively reshaping their scene. These ways are mostly to one side of official political culture, but the young are nevertheless evidently engaged and thinking. What produced the law change in New Zealand that I defended to my dad was, in Parliament, the unusual mechanism of officially obviated discussion and a conscience vote. The real work of cultural change had mostly been done invisibly, elsewhere, beforehand. The accomplishment was wrought not chiefly by Parliament but by young people.

Official political culture in New Zealand makes quite a different impression. It is not reflecting Enlightenment values as I think it should. Events not many days after my dad died piqued in me this concern. My younger daughter Eleanor is a writer, who is well received internationally for her work. Almost straight from her coming together with wider family to memorialise her grandfather’s life, she travelled to a literary festival in India. As a guest there, she answered some questions posed to her by some literary reporters. The honourable way for a guest to answer questions is openly and honestly, and this Eleanor did, with her chief responsibility to be, in her replies, interesting and helpful. The context for ‘interesting and helpful’ partly concerned that in India, a sharp shift to the right politically has recently occurred, and that Eleanor in her own experience as a writer hails from a country now many years advanced into a new kind of rule by the political right.

The questions drew my daughter to state her sharply critical view of New Zealand’s right-wing political leadership, especially with respect to the arts. She criticised New Zealand’s present National-led Government: her ringing and passionate words to the literary reporters were that New Zealand at present “is dominated by neo-liberal, profit-obsessed, shallow and money-hungry politicians who do not care about culture.”

Amazingly, this vibration of the air in Jaipur, India, caused within hours the New Zealand Prime Minister to respond (on breakfast television) to New Zealanders about Eleanor’s remarks. Further media discussion of Eleanor followed on after this Prime Ministerial intervention. It stepped away still further not only from the context of Eleanor’s remarks in India but even from the content of those remarks and from her reasons for making them. Soon its focus seemed not any longer to concern ideas at all. The discussion had come to concern a kind of grief in New Zealand about its being criticised abroad by one of its own. And correlated with that, the discussion had come to concern my daughter’s character. ‘Ungrateful’ was one much discussed accusation, for example, which concerns not at all a person’s motivations, let alone the reasons that stand behind the person’s thought. To make me out as ‘ungrateful’ to have argued with my father, likewise would not scrutinise even my motivations for arguing with him, let alone the reasons behind the convictions of my own with which, during some days which proved to be among his last, I countered a few of his ideas. Such a charge would be unfair and false, and yet, how ever, even so, could I cogently counter it? I did not recognise my daughter in almost anything said during the media storm in New Zealand that followed her Jaipur interview. But worse than that, I witnessed, in relation to her, a slide in discussion itself very sharply away from the ideal that I think alone befits democracy.

In the response concerning Eleanor that started off all the other discussion, the Prime Minister stated that he had “great respect for her as a writer”. He stated that, in contrast, Eleanor “doesn’t have respect” for what he and his fellow leaders do and about this he felt “disappointed”, yet at the same time “not surprised” inasmuch as Eleanor had publicly professed support for the Green Party at the last election. What were the Prime Minister’s motivations to make news, in this way, of my daughter’s criticisms, I think is a pertinent question, but that is not the question that I will address here. In light of the Prime Minister’s media contribution, I think a more important consideration is the concept of respect. The meaning that the Prime Minister associates with that term is quite completely alien from the Enlightenment viewpoint. I wonder about this. Is this meaning of the Prime Minister’s emblematic of the New Zealand temperament? Do we want his understanding of respect to be ambient among us? Our official institutions owe a great deal to the Enlightenment. I believe we need to consider together what understanding of respect is needed as well as best.

Do we want his understanding of respect to be ambient among us?

The ideal that Enlightenment thinkers promulgated is the following: No obsequious regard for authority, either of clerics or of a king, must make persons shrink from critical reflection. With all due pride in your reason, and with all due humility before reason, you yourself must enter upon discussion and debate. You must test your convictions and your values. You must yourself seek convictions and values that, in interaction with others, you have reasoned through.

One spur to Enlightenment thinking was egregious contemporary religious intolerance and persecution. From out of unspeakable travesties — burnings-alive by Christians of other Christians, and incandescent massacres made possible by religious views — there emerged growing Enlightenment passion to make a different beginning. What would it be to admire the softly-spoken, rationally-engaged-with-others and earnestly self-critical, resolutely reflective person? What could society gain? Times had made it imperative to consider these questions.

When you and one of your fellows tests by reason some disagreement between you, you seek not to win, but to find the truth. For the purposes of discussion, you value the truth above all else. That is why you will bring passion to the discussion. You and one of your fellows seek to make the arbiter of your disagreement the unforced force of the better argument. Such unforced force in relation to considerations fully laid into view ideally would alter the persuasions of the one or the other or the both of you until you would agree. Not despite the passion but in line with it, just such reasoned thinking and potential agreement would be what your arguing with your fellow was for.

Enlightenment thinkers stood under no illusion that their age was as yet an enlightened one. It was, they believed, but an age of gathering enlightenment. Against a backdrop of often angry political and religious intrigue, critical discussion took hold. In England and France, the preeminent place for this new discussion was coffee houses and salons. Across other countries, somewhat less striking new contexts for discussion were found. If the test of ideas and of differences of ideas is to become the unforced force of the better argument, then special conditions of trust and equality of power must obtain. Coffee houses and salons came sufficiently near to providing these conditions that a change of phase in intellectual culture took place. In France, salonnière facilitators of discussion were prodigiously adept. In England, the Spectator and the Tatler considered truly breaking news to be whatever new heights discussion in coffee houses had reached. Consequently the momentum behind discussion itself gathered, quite by feeding on itself. Also in Dutch- and German-speaking as well as many other lands, courageous orators and writers extended the currency not only of new thinking but also of the social and individual dispositions that make such thinking possible. Across many nations, an old Establishment was gradually shrunken and dissipated, by gathering democratization of thought.

Thinkers of the Enlightenment founded the modern ideals and institutions of democracy. They also opened the way to bourgeoning science. Today we may criticise their convictions. In some ways it is only self-respecting to do so. Yet we must look still to them for help, if we wish to understand richly the relevant notion of respect, including the relevant notion of self-respect.

Respect itself (according to Enlightenment convictions) demands from us that we engage critically with our fellows. Equally respect demands that we ourselves be critical of our own thinking, just as we must welcome critical engagement by others. A respectful person seeks critical engagement, and a self-respecting person is by that very fact self-critical. The Enlightenment conception, if accepted, makes clear that you truly cannot be respectful of others without being self-respecting, just as you cannot be self-respecting without being respectful of others.

We will need trust and equality of power if we are to engage with our fellows in mutual critical reflection

Self-criticism as well as critical engagement with others leads a person to possess views that are nuanced and in many ways tentative or exploratory. With views of this kind we will need trust and equality of power if we are to engage with our fellows in mutual critical reflection. Only when trust is garnered and power equalised may the test for our different viewpoints be the unforced force of the better argument. Only then will the exposure be tolerated, of nuanced, tentative or exploratory, complex thinking, to open-minded, many-sided public criticism and debate.

The way that the Enlightenment understands reason and respect implies that persons are deeply interdependent. Just as respect and self-respect are ever joined according to this understanding, reason itself is made out as commanding that persons are equal. It could not even be self-respecting for one to treat other persons merely as means to one’s own ends. The only self-respecting mode of engagement would at the same time be supremely respectful: others must always be made out to be ends in themselves. Reason itself thus inextricably interposes demand, on the one hand, for inner harmony or coherence of will, with demand, on the other hand, to help harmonise in the world the ends of not only oneself but also of all others, all considered equally. A reasonable person must in some sense carry the world on her shoulders. The only kingdom that the Enlightenment recognised was a well-reasoned “kingdom of ends”, an ideal for order itself, to which reasoners as reasoners are individually, severally and mutually directed. Especially emphatic was Enlightenment insistence that all persons must contribute to the reasoning in question.

Recent political history has turned quite sharply against these dispositions. Interdependency of selves is less the flavour of present times than is self-dependency (or some supposed form of creative independence of each self from all others). Life is supposed to be a competitive game, and the game is supposed to be to push oneself to get ahead of the others, economically. While the ideal of inclusive reasoning requires equalisation of power, the present day proceeds towards ever-increased inequality. Forms of cooperation that may be natural to human beings are deliberately undermined, in an effort to replace cooperation by competition, which is made out as the superior orientation. In these times there is little encouragement to think that respect and self-respect hold together inseparably. There is every encouragement to think that respect and self-respect are independent of one another, rather different from one another, and disposed by their character not to come together, but instead to fall apart. Each is reduced to something quite feeble: respect, to being intimidated by others of some higher kind of station, and self-respect, to a kind of confidence that one is oneself of the high station, and feels therefore no intimidation from others.

The promulgation of fear is especially current in present times. This connects with the undermining of reasoned engagement. The Enlightenment was a call to courage. Fear prepares a person to alter quickly what the person is even willing to do. Courage in a situation in which courage is called for may help a person to change quickly what they do, but would never change what the person is willing to do. A courageous person acts from a considered position. Reason and its required prior reflection ineluctably condition the very possibility of courage.

Intimidation is fear-mongering. It can begin at the Prime Ministerial level quite innocent of any raising of the voice, though possibly not quite innocent of the raising of a smirk. Intimidation is real enough if it leads to media character-assassinating frenzy. Intimidation may seem self-respecting, if only according to a pathetic, reduced understanding of self-respect that has come to possess present-day currency. Yet on the rich, Enlightenment understanding of the terms ‘respect’ and ‘self-respect’, intimidation miserably fails not only conditions of respect, but fails even more deeply the conditions of self-respect. For, a person who intimidates by that very act withdraws from rational discussion.

I suppose that “having an argument” can upon these shrunken understandings still seem to those who engage in it to demonstrate “self-respect” and to follow an arc of “demanding respect” from others. Having an argument will then be a fiery, shouting affair. On this conception, an argument is a contest: who can enter and not be intimidated? It aims at victory, and at nothing higher. Who can prevail in a kind of intimidation of the other? In this performance the standard is not set by what holds thinking people together or makes them interdependent. The standard for the performance is merely concerned with power.

Eleanor’s book The Luminaries seems to some of its thoughtful readers clarion in its treatment of the human condition when that condition has become money-obsessed. A fetish for money is fairly poisonous to the pursuit, by anyone, of anything higher. Money fetish infects the world even of those least personally governed by it. That is enough like astrological conditioning of destiny perhaps to make the one good allegory for the other. Meaning remains possible thank goodness, neither because of the conditions nor completely independently of them. Meaning remains possible because it is, in its own origin, a freshening, a different take upon and so a subtle but sweeping tweaking of conditions. Meaning cannot but break at least somewhat the hold of the orientation to money that aims at nothing higher. Where does hope express itself? In what kind of life is meaning fullest? Not only is meaning more than money; that there is art in life, however seemingly bound life is by its conditions, ensures that this is so. Art and meaning are connected essentially. Money and meaning are not. This sort of lesson some thoughtful readers do see in the book. Their interpretation is not final because no-one’s is, including the author’s. An author is courageous, to put out to an audience potentially global in reach something so personal and debatable as a book. An author authors art, and that makes for meaning that is open to ever renewed reinterpretation. No complex, such even as an ambient fetish for money, can limit or define what an author is about. Prime Minister, an author may meaningfully address you from this very space.

The Prime Minister dismissed my daughter’s criticism of his motivations and his policies as politically irrelevant. He has proposed to New Zealand that he “respects her as a writer” but that she has shown that she “does not respect” him. Respect needs to be about engagement, Prime Minister. Criticism, even strident criticism, can be at its heart. Respect connects with our capability to reason, yet when you mention ‘respect’, I think you mean, Prime Minister, that you would not presume to outcompete Eleanor at writing. What a daft limitation to your thinking that is. I think you mean also, Prime Minister, that Eleanor cannot outcompete you in politics. You have means to make very uncomfortable any effort of hers to try. On your understanding, her criticism could be relevant only if in some contest of power with you she were liable to win. You are saying that she would be disrespectful to engage with you or enter your arena; she would respect you if she doesn’t engage. Yet, Prime Minister, all this is, in relation to the Enlightenment, a travesty. When reflection is called for, we are all in this together.