How to be respectful

The discussion of my hostile and flippant comment on the Secretary General’s advice to ‘respect all religious beliefs’ last week got diverted into irrelevance right at the beginning with talk of laughing at people who pray before dinner, which had nothing at all to do with the subject under discussion; and it went on the way it began, irrelevance piled on irrelevance. Commenters insisted that the Secretary General didn’t really mean what he had said, he meant something else; I kept replying that I was talking about what he had in fact said, only to get more assertions about what he really meant. Commenters insisted that the only alternative to ‘respect’ was laughing at people, ignoring the vast middle ground between those two possibilities. As an example of some of that middle ground I mentioned Katha Pollitt and suggested that she doesn’t pause to ask herself if every thought might cause some reader to feel disrespected, only to be told (with mystifying confidence) that Katha Pollitt doesn’t want people to feel disrespected. How ‘Serafina’ knows that is a question for the annals of The Journal of Other Minds, but be that as it may, I had a look through Pollitt’s Subject to Debate and found plenty of comments that (note that I say this with energetic approval) could be seen by the hypervigilant as failing to worry about whether or not some readers might feel disrespected.

[C]ommunitarianism offers a particular social ministratum – middleaged white academics with children and fading memories of once having been happier and more liberal – a way to see themselves as political actors without having to do much that is difficult, boring, scary or expensive…What is communitarianism, finally, but Republicanism for Democrats – Reaganism with a human face? It’s the perfect philosophy for our emerging one-party state…[‘Communitarianism No’ The Nation 1994; Subject to Debate pp 15-6]

Mostly, though, chapel made me loathe religion…I know believers too who don’t trouble themselves over the outmoded or bloodthirsty bits of their faith; they just take what they want and leave the rest. Not me. For me, religion is serious business – a farrago of authoritarian nonsense, misogyny and humble pie, the eternal enemy of human happiness and freedom. My family may have made me a nonbeliever, but it took chapel to make me an atheist. [‘School Prayer? By All Means’ The Nation 1994; Subject to Debate p. 29]

The state-backed religions of Western Europe are pallid affairs compared with our robust industry of Virgin-spotters, tongues-speakers and Mitzvah-mobilers. Where is the English Jimmy Swaggart, the French billboard in whose depicted bowl of spaghetti thousands claim to discern the face of Christ?…[Y]ou could say that when the state underwrites religion the buried links between these two forms of social control stand too clearly revealed for modern, let alone postmodern, people to accept…It’s never too early for the young to take the measure of the forces arrayed against those who would think for themselves…Prayer in the schools will rid us of the bland no-offense ecumenism that is so infuriating to us anticlericals: Oh, so now you say Jews didn’t kill Christ – a little on the late side, isn’t it? [Ibid]

Better a panhandler than the Hare Krishna costumed like Bozo the Clown, who is louder than any panhandler and much more obnoxious, or that beautiful black nun, doomed to spend her rapidly fading youth silently holding her bowl near the Times Square token booth. At least with panhandlers, you know your money isn’t going to build ashrams or convert the heathen. [‘Beggar’s Opera’ The Nation 1994; Subject to Debate p 33]

See what I mean? It’s not what you’d call gentle, or respectful of religious beliefs, or noticeably concerned about the possibility of making believers or Hare Krishnas or nuns or communitarians or fans of Jimmy Swaggart or anyone else feel “disrespected”. And what a good thing it’s not!

So what was all the huffing and puffing about? It wasn’t (we were assured) about the kind of thing Katha Pollitt writes – good heavens no – so what was it about then? If (as we were assured) Pollitt is fine, Pollitt is okay, Pollitt is not the kind of writer we are to understand as the kind who is disrespectful – then there is no disagreement, and all those hymns to respect and not laughing at people praying were a complete waste of time, because we’re all on the same page. I’m defending everyone’s right – moral as well as legal – to write this kind of thing, not the BNP or God Hates Fags kind of thing. So what was everyone else defending? Beats the hell out of me.

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