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Respect Meme

Posted Nov 03 2006 5:41pm
Jonathan and María Luján started a ‘Respect Meme’ a couple of weeks ago, and NotMercury joined in. Their versions are here, here, and here respectively. I thought that I would join the stampede and give it a go.

1. What is respect for others?

I quite like and agree with NotMercury’s answer to this:

"Respect for others comes when we recognize our differences and make an effort to treat others the way we wish to be treated in spite of our differences"

I also like María Luján’s point about empathy being the root of a true understanding. A lot of people confuse empathy with agreement, but agreement is not required. To me, empathy is an understanding – or at least a reasonable attempt at understanding – of the position of another. Understanding another’s views does not require agreeing with them, or even liking them. But it does require listening rather than ‘selective listening’ or prejudging.

There will undoubtedly be disagreements, and it is legitimate to raise and discuss them. But disagreements over ideas, concepts, and even 'facts' and their interpretations (some forget that even 'facts' can be open to interpretation, especially when it comes to their meaning, importance, and implications) should not be treated as an excuse to attack the person with whom one disagrees. Even in the case of disagreement over conduct, one should still attempt to confine oneself to commenting on the behaviour, not the person. People make mistakes, and an error in judgment or action does not automatically render one a person unworthy of respect.

Having said that, I do not think that everyone is deserving of respect. I would suggest that one should always give the other person the benefit of the doubt, i.e. treat people as deserving of respect until they clearly demonstrate otherwise. But some people do clearly demonstrate otherwise. And then one has to choose how to respond. More on this in Question 4.

2. What are things that appear to respect issues, but are not?

I agree with Jonathan that some cannot separate the argument from their personhood, and thus incorrectly see a challenge to their ideas as a personal challenge. Confining one’s challenge to the idea itself and not the person behind can help to minimize this, but this will still be an issue at times.

A related issue is that some ‘wrap themselves in the flag’. On one side, some autistics view a disagreement with their ideas as a challenge or an attack on all of those who are autistic. "If you disagree with me then you don’t respect autistics". The mirror image on the 'all autism=mercury poisoning' side is "If you don’t agree with me then you are abusing children". Er, no, on both counts.

Another point I would agree with is that of NotMercury, who answered this with "When intentions are offered as justification for irresponsible actions." Good intentions do not automatically make one right or excuse negative actions, and should not shield those negative actions from comment or judgment. And legitimately questioning those actions can also be accomplished in such a way as to not disparage the intentions behind them (assuming that the intentions are good).

3. Is this relevant to the autism discussion and why?

Respect is very relevant to the autism discussion. I would suggest that from the point of view of the neurodiversity community, respect – and the perception (and in a lot of cases the reality) of the absence of respect - is one of the driving reasons behind their participation in the debate. I would suggest that the ‘autism = mercury’ parents also see the debate – in their case with the government and with many in the scientific community – as a respect issue, and also lack respect for the ND point of view as well as for many of its proponents. And for the majority of parents and caregivers, the respect issue revolves around government and support agencies not providing the amount of care and support that is required to improve the quality of life and accommodation of those touched by autism (i.e. not respecting what they see as the conditions required to respect the right to proper and adequate support).

I would suggest that the actions of many in response to the lack of respect that they feel they should be accorded are negatively affecting the wellbeing of all. But of course, "They started it!", so they will rail against and wait for the ‘other’ to fix the issues rather than seeking to build consensus around points on which they can agree. I would only half jokingly suggest that all involved need a course in ‘Interest Group Accommodation’. As a hint, more success can often be had by sitting at the table where the decisions are being made than by banging on the door outside. The goal is to get to the table, not to impotently make noise. Has anyone ever heard of the politics of entryism?

Some may argue that ‘rights’ are not items to be negotiated. But that is not what I am saying. Instead, I’ll use the analogy of the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Neither side was particularly accommodating of the other, nor were they willing to cede their rights where interests clashed. And at least in the Soviet case the expectation was not of long term co-existence but of an eventual ‘inevitable’ victory of communism and elimination of the other side (in its existing political form) as an opponent. Yet the two sides were still able to find common ground and agreement on more than a few issues that they shared in common, to mutual gain, while still remaining true to their long term goals.

4. What can we do to help resolve these issues?

Regardless of whether the other person deserves respect, one's own conduct is a separate issue. As María Luján quoted me on her blog:

"The real test of moral conduct is how one acts in the face of provocation. Someone else's bad behaviour towards me gives me the right to respond and to defend myself, but it does not give me carte blanche to respond in kind."

That is not an easy statement to live up to, and I would not even begin to suggest that I am successful in doing so in life. But one has to start somewhere. If my moral code goes out the window whenever someone challenges me, then what is it worth? To me, the correct response to clearly improper and sustained conduct is to point out the behavioural failings while remaining civil and true to one’s own code of civil conduct. Easier said than done. But if I bring myself down to the level of behaviour that I am objecting to then what have I gained?

To me, it all boils down to ‘Why are we participating in this *debate*?’ I am here to learn, possibly to contribute something back, and to act as a representative for my daughter until she is ready to take on this role for herself. I stand a better chance of accomplishing these goals if others are willing to engage in a dialogue. I am not here to make enemies - this is counterproductive. Some may be angered by my opposition to their viewpoints. That cannot be helped. But I can try my best to ensure that no one has as an excuse to shut down dialogue that I have personally and maliciously attacked them.

So, on to my point. Regardless of whether I respect someone, I owe it to them (usually), myself (definitely) and my daughter (definitely) to conduct myself in a civil manner, to remain true to my own ideals and code of conduct. I would suggest that – ultimately – this is the more powerful response. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that one should not defend oneself, or refrain from criticizing the arguments of others. Far from it, and I believe that I am quite vigorous in defending myself. But I am suggesting that there is a big difference between defending oneself and sinking to the level of one’s opponent.

5. How well do you think this will be accomplished?

On a personal level, I will try my best to be respectful of others, and at a minimum remain civil. At times I will fail (and should be called on this), but this is not an excuse to not try.

From an autism community standpoint, my expectations are low in the short term. It doesn't take long to find posts that have descended into slanging matches, or even posts that started at that level. Longer term, I think that answers provided by science, combined with the fact that the current generation of autistic children will one day become adults and influence the debate - probably in ways that will surprise all ‘sides’ - will be positive developments.

One of the keys to altering the tone of the debate is 'understanding' (again, this is distinct from 'agreement'), which is currently in short supply. I believe that as we learn more about autism we will find more items on which we can agree. But that will be a very long process.

As a final note, the above should not be construed as suggestive of anyone in particular. I would say that I have no issues with anyone who has commented on my blog to date (not just because they have commented here, but because we have ultimately been able to engage in a reasonable dialogue over time, even when we disagree). While I have had run-ins with some in the past, I have tried not to let it get personal, and I have found that one can (at least so far) eventually get to engage in a reasonable dialogue. I hope that others have found the same with me. As suggested on my ‘About Me’, we don't need to agree: I learn the most from those I don't agree with. And I would like to keep the discussion going.
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