Respect and Academic Freedom

April 2020

How should concerns about respecting people figure into determinations of the proper limits of academic freedom and scholarship, and freedom of expression more generally? At my own institution and in the wider world I have observed a number of aggrieved parties attempt to stifle academic freedom in the interests of promoting respect or as a means of ending or preventing disrespect. What are we to make of such efforts? Considering how widespread and deep our respect for the value of respect is, it might seem that such demands have some merit.

Since my opening question is too broad to fully address here, I will narrow my focus to one aspect of this topic – how confusion over different senses of the words “respect” and “disrespect” lead many people to overstate the case for not disrespecting people at the expense of both academic freedom and freedom of expression more generally. I will argue that before we can fairly compare the disvalue of disrespecting someone against the value of tolerating academic work or expressive acts more generally that manifest such disrespect, we must first be clear on exactly what is at issue. Since disrespectful acts can be located along a spectrum from the trivial to the offensive to the harmful, such balancing efforts depend upon first accurately identifying and assessing the nature and seriousness of the disrespect in question. Generally opposing disrespect and endorsing respect is not enough; when we are tasked with weighing competing claims we must make more careful and fine-grained judgments.

A quick check of the news provides us with plenty of illustrations of the ways in which we employ the concepts of “respect” and “disrespect”:

  • Al Sharpton claims that Donald Trump’s decision to not visit Martin Luther King Jr.’s memorial on the day dedicated to honor him was a “sign of disrespect”.
  • Mike Trout “lost respect” for Houston Astros players who cheated.
  • Protestors in Hong Kong call on their government to respect their rights.
  • Critics claim that Colin Kaepernick showed a lack of respect toward his country by kneeling during the playing of the national anthem at his football games.
  • Justin Trudeau says that the government must respect the rights of protestors to protest peacefully but that the protestors must respect the rule of law.
  • Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred apologizes for the “disrespectful way” in which he referred to the World Series trophy.

How should we understand and differentiate these claims?

It is useful to distinguish at least three different senses of “respect” along the spectrum I just mentioned. Thus in the first sense (call it R1) to be respectful means to act politely or considerately towards another. In this sense being disrespectful consists in being rude; it is used, for instance, when someone asserts that “It was disrespectful of him to constantly interrupt her when she was speaking.” In a second sense (call it R2) to respect someone is to esteem them or hold them in proper regard. Thus in this sense to disrespect someone is to fail to adequately esteem them as when a coach explains his team’s loss by observing that they did not “respect their opponent”. He means that they did not take them seriously enough, and therefore that their preparation and subsequent execution was lacking. Finally in a third (Kantian) sense (call it R3) to respect someone is to regard or treat them as a bearer of dignity capable of choosing for themselves and for taking responsibility for their life. To respect someone in this way is to acknowledge their right and capacity to live and direct their own life, or in the case of people who have diminished competency, to direct the parts of their lives to the extent to which they are able to do so.

It is easy to see how we can confuse the different senses. Thus whereas not so long ago it was considered disrespectful (in the R1 sense) for children to speak without being asked a direct question in the company of adults, and whereas we might think that young children are not owed much respect (in the R2 sense) because they have not achieved much, we nonetheless think that children are owed respect (in the R3 sense) for being able to make choices and take responsibility for those choices that they are competent to make.

With these distinctions between the different senses of “respect” in mind I would like to briefly argue for a number of points:

1. There is a spectrum of disrespectful conduct from unintentionally mispronouncing someone’s name (you should have made a more determined effort to learn the correct pronunciation!) to enslaving them. Academic freedom and freedom of expression should be suppressed in the interests of respecting people only if the disvalue from allowing such cases of disrespect outweighs the disvalue from permitting the acts of academic freedom and expression. In the interests of saving space I am going to mostly assume rather than argue for the view that attempts to stifle academic freedom and freedom of expression generally must not only pass the threshold of harm, but also must qualify as instances of wrongful harm. This means that cases of disrespect in the first two senses fail to meet this standard because they constitute, at most, minor indiscretions. Although being polite is nice, rudeness is often trivial and, at worst, merely offensive. Although rude conduct is annoying and, for some, even upsetting, for most of us such incidents are transitory. We leave them behind as we move on with our lives. Whereas harms set back our interests, offensive conduct, however annoying or irritating, does not reach this threshold, or at least it should not. (A question worth examining on another occasion is whether the cumulative impact of multiple instances of rude conduct can exceed the threshold of harm or whether such acts in the aggregate are incommensurable with harm. This is one of the issues in the debate over the wrongness of so-called “microaggressions”.)

Similarly although we should properly esteem and honour people for their achievements, failing to do so, except where this is a matter of fairness as when we are assessing people’s job performance, should, again, not be regarded as so important. Although it may be nice to receive compliments from others for one’s achievements, the presence or absence of this sort of casual social recognition should not matter much to people with self-respect and healthy self-esteem. My goal in being a good father is to help and support my children because I love them. I’m not doing it to win some father-of-the-year award. Indeed, those who achieve out of a desire to obtain the approval of others display a lack of self-respect.

2. Confusion over the different senses of “respect” also infects demands that we respect people’s rights. Observing someone’s right to something entails honoring their claim by, for example, assuming a correlative duty, but whether someone has such a right, or more precisely whether someone has such a right of such-and-such strength, depends on the nature of the right in question. My demand that you respect my “right” to respect in the R1 sense is a great deal less serious than the claim that you should respect my right to freedom of conscience or association. Therefore, insofar as the demands to be treated respectfully in the first two senses fail to meet the standard for limiting academic freedom or freedom of expression, so too do claims to respect imagined rights to be treated respectfully in these respects.

3. Confusion regarding respect talk extends in at least two directions. Whereas disrespecting someone in either sense 1 or 2 is, ceteris paribus, wrong, it is a confusion to assume that all cases of disrespecting someone in the third sense are, ceteris paribus, also wrong. When I refuse to allow my children aged 10, 11, and 12 to follow through on their plan to hitchhike around the US for the summer “for fun,” I disrespect them because I prevent them from acting on and taking responsibility for their choices. But I do no wrong. (It would also be a confusion to insist that by protecting them from their own incompetence I “really” respect them.) Similarly I disrespect my students by setting the curriculum in my courses. But again, I do no wrong by showing such disrespect. In order to justly limit a teacher’s academic freedom one must show not simply that acts of academic freedom are disrespectful; one must show that they are wrongfully disrespectful.

4. Being wrongfully disrespected in the R3 sense is the only sort of appeal to disrespect that could justifiably pass the threshold of harm needed to engage a serious analysis regarding whether such acts should limit academic freedom or freedom of expression more broadly. However, the problem with these cases is not only showing that such expressions constitute wrongful harm but that they are even acts of disrespect. Consider, for example, the question whether expressions of dissent are wrongfully disrespectful. Someone might believe that it is disrespectful in the R1 sense to contradict someone – someone might be embarrassed or offended that their view was disputed or refuted. Similarly such dissent might be regarded as disrespectful in the R2 sense because the criticism in question is taken as disparaging because it shows that that the criticized view is not worthy of being esteemed. However, it would be a confusion to infer on either of these bases that such dissent even constituted disrespect, let alone wrongful disrespect, in the R3 sense. On the contrary, holding someone accountable for their views is a sign of respect in the R3 sense. Thus either the dissent does not reach the threshold of harm, or it is not actually disrespectful, let alone wrongfully disrespectful, and so once again should not be suppressed.

Of course, this brief analysis leaves unsettled cases of expressions of academic freedom and freedom of expression more generally that allegedly constitute hate speech that is both wrongful and that violates the harm threshold but my aim in this discussion has not been to advance any analysis of these cases, let alone judge them. Rather my goal has been to try to discredit vague and confused appeals to disrespect to attempt to wrongfully stifle both academic freedom and freedom of expression more generally. Since this sort of confusion is widespread, such analysis is useful despite not touching the more serious and challenging cases.