Today, respect can sound old-fashioned, even naive. At a time when opposing forces are fraying the fabric of the United States, the difference between respecting others and enabling one’s adversaries seems a thin line. What’s more, respect can be a means of repression – a tool used to defend the status quo. Activists of the civil rights era were often accused of lacking respect.
But a recent series of articles from The Christian Science Monitor takes a decidedly different view. In fact, the articles in our Respect Project argue the opposite: In its highest and deepest meanings, respect is an essential agent of progress and healing. Why?
A recent interview in Politico offers some insight. In 1991, political scientist James Davison Hunter wrote the book “Culture Wars,” lamenting how politics was being taken over by cultural issues on which compromise was impossible. Back then, it was abortion. Today, he told Politico, “part of our problem is that we have politicized everything.”
As a result, “the very idea of treating your opponents with civility is a betrayal,” he said. “How can you be civil to people who threaten your very existence? … You can compromise with politics and policy, but if politics and policy are a proxy for culture, there’s just no way.”
Much has been said about the threats to American democracy, but for Professor Hunter, this expansion of the culture wars is one of the deepest drivers. “Democracy, in my view, is an agreement that we will not kill each other over our differences, but instead we’ll talk through those differences,” he said. “And part of what’s troubling is that I’m beginning to see signs of the justification for violence on both sides.”
What is the way out?
He said: “Well, I’m going to sound really old-fashioned here, but I think that this work takes a long time and it’s hard. I think you talk through the conflicts. Don’t ignore them; don’t pretend that they don’t exist. And whatever you do, don’t just simply impose your view on anyone else. You have to talk them through.”
That is what our Respect Project is about. How do you do the long, hard work of talking through conflict to find the common purpose that is essential to democracy? Our aim was to draw from the deepest conflicts in society – the culture wars – on race, politics, sexual identity, and religious freedom. Our stories explore how a commitment to respect – essentially, to the humanity of one another – can change lives and open doorways previously unseen.
This, Professor Hunter argues, is the “whole point of civil society.” It is to provide the mediation that prevents violence. The Constitution provides the framework for the American experiment, but it depends on its citizens to do the work.
“What is going to underwrite liberal democracy in the 21st century?” Professor Hunter asked. “That’s the big puzzle.” The answer is the same as it has always been. What do we share in common? That, Professor Hunter says, is the way to find “the sources we can draw upon to come together and find any kind of solidarity.”