Should we have to respect or just tolerate abhorrent views?

Academics at one of our most learned institutions vote next week on what free speech means. Our CEO says respect should be earned

04 Dec 2020
University Hall, University of Cambridge, photo: Jorge Royan, CC BY-SA 3.0

I love words. I love how language evolves and how a book, or an article or a speech can change your perception of the world in a moment. I am so proud to be part of the team at Index because our role is to make sure that everyone, wherever they live, has a right to use the most core of human rights – our right to free expression. That you and I both have the same rights to have our voices heard.

But just because we have the same rights to free speech doesn’t mean that I have to agree with you, or respect you, or even like you. In fact, my right of free expression empowers me to fundamentally disagree with you and tell you so. It gives me the right to challenge you, to challenge societal norms, to think differently and to make my argument to the world. It allows me to write this blog.

Of course, there are limitations, certain clubs you may choose to join have their own standards and by joining them you are choosing to abide by their rules. Some institutions have set frameworks on language for good reason, but in the main, in our homes, at the pub (whenever we get to go to those again – not that I am bitter about living in Tier 3!), on our social media, free speech empowers people and ensures that the minority have the protected right to be heard.

What we don’t have is a protected right to be liked or respected. Respect is earned. Respect demands that I value your opinion. Respect requires me to think there may be merit in your views. I am a proud anti-racist. I simply can’t and would not respect the views of a racist. I am a proud trade unionist. I could never respect a union-breaker. I am a proud internationalist. I would never respect the arguments of populism or nationalism.

But while I may not respect the people that espouse these views or the ideas themselves that doesn’t mean that I don’t have to tolerate them. It doesn’t mean that they don’t have the right to say them and to promote them. It just means I have the right (and on occasion the responsibility) to challenge them and prove them wrong. I may find someone’s arguments abhorrent (and I do, regularly) and I am never going to respect them but I do have to accept their right to have those views and in a free and fair society I have to tolerate the objectionable.

Which brings me to Cambridge University. On Tuesday (8 December) we will know the result of a ballot of academics at one of our most important academic institutions. The ballot is on the issue of free speech and as you would expect from an institution built on the principles of academic freedoms and intellectual curiosity there is a debate about the definition of free speech. Specifically, whether academics have to respect each other’s opinions or merely tolerate them.

Honestly, I think it would be perverse for an institution which is meant to be free to explore and investigate every aspect of our societies, an institution that demands its academics debate and argue to prove their point, an institution which has a global leadership role – to demand respect for abhorrent views, rather than toleration.

We all want to live in a world where people are nicer to each other, where you can go on social media without fear of abuse, where hate crime is a thing of the past. I don’t think that we’re going to achieve these goals if we demand respect from each other. We need to earn it and the first step on that journey is toleration.

2 responses to “Should we have to respect or just tolerate abhorrent views?”

  1. Martin macrae says:

    To set a defined pre requisite over normal politeness is censorship. The dreadful. Woke resentment and victim culture deserves ridicule to raise awareness to the danger of that kind of censure , they preach as the prerequisite rather than argue, so there is little point in trying anything else that shows their absurdity

  2. Philip Herlihy says:

    I certainly respect the views expressed here!