Given that respect for human dignity is arguably the central value of Ethical Culture, how do we express that dignity in concrete ways towards people whom we do not like or are socially destructive?
Thomas Paine famously described the dilemma faced by those fighting for freedom from Britain during the American Revolution as, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” Paine was talking about choosing sides during the war (actually Paine was not conflicted about which side was right and said so) but the quote can be used to refer to our own times: our present political reality is a world of extreme divergence in the understanding of basic values, resulting in the triumphant of the right-wing. For many this new reality is shocking, depressing and a reality that try men’s souls, but for us in Ethical Culture this new reality goes beyond politics; it is a rejection of our basic core valves, we and people with similar values have been written out of the conversation about the meaning of America.
While this dark, negative political approach challenges some of our most sacred beliefs, possibly more damaging is the effect it has on the relational fabric of the country. Beyond divergence in opinion on social issues, a divergence in world views has developed that seeps into all aspects of life and creates an absolutist environment that leads to anger and hatred for those with whom we disagree. Many people no longer talk to some of their closest friends. Brother avoids brother, cousin doesn’t invite cousin to their wedding, cruel remarks are exchanged. We are confronted not only with a political reality but also a personal one, a moral dilemma. When politics gets personal, our position can be more important than people. The moral value of respect can get lost in the fight for our social justice positions. How do we respectfully relate to family, friends, neighbors, or a stranger on a bus who express what we consider to be destructive, even hateful opinions? What comes first, the person or our political values?
The core of this problem is the extreme difference in worldview. Yes, we claim as a religious principle respect for the worth and dignity of every person regardless of their thoughts or actions, but these are not normal times. Eisenhower is not the President. Craziness, from my perspective, is afoot in the land. We are not experiencing just difference in opinions; we are confronted with an emotion-driven escape from reality, escape into anti-intellectualism and tribalism. For Ethical Humanist if the steady evolutionary expansion of equality and human freedom is not at the core of the human journey, then we are all lost.
For at least forty years we have had a concerted effort by the right to encourage an attitude, a worldview, that at its foundation is based on disrespect for individual human dignity. It presents an individualistic worldview in which everyone, no matter how disadvantaged, is expected to take care of themselves—we aren’t in this together, we are not our brother’s keeper. We have arrived at both the zenith of negative self-pitting politics and the nadir of intelligent progressive concern for others.
This new reality offers an opportunity to question the meaning and limits of our belief in respect for every person. It offers us the challenge of taking our values out of their theoretical closet and into actual living.
To do that I start by making a distinction, love and respect are not the same thing. Love is a popular emotion—Whole Foods, Subaru, and Coca Cola claim it for their brand. Both the Jewish and Christian bibles tell us to love our neighbors as ourselves. That sounds good (actually very beautiful) but thinking it through can make it sound naive. Our neighbor may be a drug dealing child molester, maybe his mother loves him, but I believe that it is asking too much of the rest of us. Love is a journey into the intimate aspects of a person, a commitment to caring regardless. Love is sharing the self but loving everyone cheapens the authenticity of love. Although love may include respect, there is a difference. In fact, when the bible suggests we love our neighbor, I suggest the bible is talking about the everyman. It is seeing yourself in the other, feeling our sameness. It is a suggestion on how to treat others, and love in that context is respect for what is our shared humanity while we also accept that everyone is unique and different.
For Ethical Culture, respect as a religious value is a reflection of our basic understanding of reality. We do not find an ultimate in some ancient mystery but in the human experience, in the acceptance of natural and human reality as our foundation. We live in the real world. Our reality is made up of individuals, each a point in the web of life and each imperfect in their own unique way. Each has their own reason for being, their own desires, their own sense of good, their own destiny. That world of diverse individuals is the one in which we actually live and the more that is a world of respect for each person, the more equal and just our world will be.
But, that does not mean we ignore who an individual is. A person is not an empty shell who is respected just for his or her shared humanity. In word and deed each of us defines ourselves, says who we are. A person should be respected for who he or she actually is. We may not like who that is but we must respect their right to self-definition. There is no one right person, we all do life our own way and self-definition is the essence of that personhood. Each of us tells the world who we are with our word and deed and while we all deserve respect no matter what, the quality of that respect must be a response to an actual person—respect changes with each person. If a person is a misogynistic racist then he or she should be respected as just that—with all that comes with being a misogynistic racist. If we can find a nice way of saying it, we should express our disdain for her or his opinions. We must also respect ourselves and stand up for our values by confronting positions we consider hateful and destructive.
As I have already said, we are in a time of crisis especially for progressives. Much of the progress in civil rights, the environment, LGBT rights, health care and hundreds of other issues is under threat. The most regressive forces control our government. Many basic values like honor and truthfulness are being pushed to the sideline in the name of self-interest, and that approach is assumed to be the smart thing to do. Lying and legal corruption are considered normal, necessary in the game of politics. Our individualistic culture encourages people to avoid facts that disagree with their prejudices. Millions of our fellow citizens are cynical and angry about almost everything. In my opinion the vast majority of the Obama-hating, Trump-loving ordinary people are victims. After generations in which residual racism, misogyny, and homophobia had become unfashionable, all the dark negative feelings have been encouraged to pour out. I have sympathy for these folks and think we should find ways to address their fears. We progressives have failed them. Arguing is not the answer, that just leads to a stubborn recommitment to their horrible beliefs.
I save my contempt for the cynical persons in the suits and flag lapel pins who have manipulated the ‘little’ people for their own self-interest. They are despicable in their disregard of the needs of the majority of the people in the name of their half-baked philosophy. They have declared their values and we should take them at their word, take them seriously and organize against them. In an act of respect for who they say they are, we should tell they directly, we don’t want what they are selling.