Saturday, May 13, 2006

An obligation to respect?

Is it just part of the essential pattern of small compromises that all human beings must make to live in this world of ours that is behind the feeling that one has an obligation to moderate one's behaviour to accomodate the religious sensibilities of others? Or in doing so, does one end up effectively colluding with injustice? Brian Whitaker asks this question in relation to the subjugation of women in Saudi Arabia:
"Generally, I take the view that travellers should adapt as far as possible to local practices: when in Riyadh do as the Riyadhis do. Not that I'm always comfortable about it, though. Sitting in the men-only section of a Saudi cafe or restaurant, I sometimes wonder how it differs from the whites-only places they used to have in South Africa, and how I would have felt about being there."
I wouldn't presume to tell Mr Whitaker or anyone else how they should behave in such a situation but I do think he'd find the questions he asks himself easier to answer if he eliminated a central falsehood from his reasoning, which is the notion that one has a duty to respect the beliefs of others. It's a commonly-held view and flows from a misunderstanding of what the 'right' to believe whatever one chooses means for the rest of us:
"My own starting point on this is that we must respect the beliefs of others. Everyone has a right to their beliefs. If they believe that the earth is flat they are entitled to think so and, if they wish, to try to persuade me that it's true. Equally, I have the right to argue that they're wrong. If neither of us can convince the other, though, we have to leave it at that without resorting to the methods of the Spanish inquisition."
People do indeed have the 'right to their beliefs' but it does not follow that everyone else has an obligation to respect those beliefs. Such an obligation would be impossible to carry; some beliefs are more respectable than others and some are not worthy of respect at all. This much should be obvious but more than that, the notion that because something is believed, it is intrinsically more worthy of our respect than something held with uncertainty, is logically untenable and socially dangerous. I don't recognise, for example, the belief that a single book is the ultimate, exhaustive source for human conduct at all times, everywhere as being worthy of respect - especially when it is espoused by people who have not read the aforementioned book all the way through themselves.

Rather, the obligation that arises from another's right to freedom of religion is simply that of recognising beliefs occupy a space in the human soul where we would all demand privacy because it is the space in which we all try to touch the eternal. But acknowledging this is little more than a matter of decorum - it does not extend to an obligation to respect what others do with this privacy, and still less when this ceases to become a private matter to being one of social expectation and public policy. Fundamentally, Brian Whitaker is describing a society where the emancipation of women simply hasn't happened. The fact that many people believe this situation is in conformity with God's will creates no obligation on my part to respect this or accomodate it in any way.

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