A few days after the 2016 Election, I received statements from both my university and my church encouraging us to have “respect” for others with whom we “strongly disagree.” Both messages for “unity” were clearly meant to be supportive, but they are misguided. Such messages ignore that the disagreements in question are not over petty partisan politics but are over the profound question of whether or not all people deserve equal human rights.
Differing opinions on the Dakota Access Pipe Line offers a ready example. Those who oppose the project point to its construction as not only desecrating sacred Native American land but also potentially harming the Sioux reservation’s main water supply. The project has also been criticized for targeting Native lands seemingly to avoid endangering predominantly white towns such as Bismarck. As Time magazine, notes, however, supporters of the project “have shown little interest in accommodating the project’s critics, particularly the protesters on the ground.”
Thus, if it is your opinion that companies should be able to forcibly destroy Native American land and endanger Native American lives for financial gain, and I disagree, that is no ordinary difference of opinion. That is a disagreement, as during the 1830s, over whether or not Native Americans’ land and lives are worth more or less than white Americans’ desire for lucrative business development.
Differences of opinion regarding gender and sexuality are similarly often less about partisan politics and more about differing beliefs in who deserves human rights. After the release of tapes revealing that Donald Trump bragged about conduct toward women that is legally defined as sexual assault, for example, it was some people’s opinion that his statements were unequivocally unacceptable and others’ opinion that they were insignificant “locker room talk.”
Given that sociological research on the use such language in the performance of masculinity has demonstrated that these utterances are “not without consequence; rather they are part of, and indeed central to, persistent gendered inequality and violence,” the difference of opinion on this issue is fundamentally over whether or not one considers the perpetuation of inequality and violence against women to be acceptable or not.
From police brutality to immigration to bathrooms to protests over these and other issues, the disagreements in our government, classrooms, and on social media are decreasingly over topics like those that Reagan and O’Neil debated and are increasingly more like those that characterized Brooks versus Sumner. In other words, as one writer puts it, “This isn’t a political contest – it’s a moral crisis.”
The secular and religious institutions to which I belong both refused to condemn hetero-patriarchal Christian white supremacist viewpoints as wrong. Their calls for “appreciation of individual differences,” encouragement to “try to understand” people with whom we disagree, and above all their admonishment to be “respectful” all combine to reveal that they accept – as equally legitimate – both the view that all people are created equal / a child of God and the view that some people are not. Their language of respect rather than justice continues a long history of prioritizing being “more cautious than courageous” and in so doing demonstrates both institutions’ failure to live up to the standards of integrity, equality, and “respect” for all that they claim to promote.
~ Jennifer Patrice Sims, PhD, is an adjunct professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. Her work examines racial perception, mixed race identity and the sociology of fictional societies, in particular Harry Potter. A life-long Roman Catholic, she also engages in dialogues analyzing the ways that organized religions are complacent in and/or contribute to social inequality.