Slippery Words— Tolerance, Respect, Welcoming, Affirming, Freedom

#5 John Wesley at Ad Lib Retreat

Words of course only have meanings in particular contexts. It is not true that ‘in the beginning was the dictionary, and the dictionary yea verily set meanings in stone’. No dictionaries and lexicons are studies of the uses of words in a variety of contexts to determine their semantic range. And of course sometimes words can be completely reversed in meaning, for example the term awful today means something that is bad, but awe-full meant full of awe and wonder originally.

What of course has happened in our American society is that as the culture has changed, the semantic range of a whole series of words has changed as well. Take for example the word ‘tolerance’. Strictly speaking this means ‘to put up with’, it does not mean ‘to accept the views of’ or ‘to agree with’ or ‘to accept the life style of’. It has none of those meanings according to the dictionaries. Tolerance in short does not mean acceptance of or capitulation to someone else’s agendas or beliefs which one finds objectionable. But de facto, that is how the word ‘tolerance’ has come to be understood. This would surprise our founding fathers to say the least.

We have the same problem with the term ‘respect’ which again has come to have the meaning of ‘acceptance’ in some circles today. But of course one can respect another person’s views or life without at all agreeing with them. I have many friends with whom I have profound disagreements on very fundamental issues, such as sexual ethics. Do I respect them and their right to articulate their views? Absolutely. Does this mean I ‘accept’ their views or lifestyle etc. I certainly do not.

In the Methodist Church we have the same problem with the slipperiness of the words ‘welcoming’ and ‘affirming’. The former is one thing, the latter is another, but we have plenty of people in our church that assume that you are not truly welcoming unless you are affirming someone’s views or lifestyle’s etc. Of course this is not what hospitality and welcoming means in the Bible. Indeed, in everyone’s favorite Psalm, Psalm 23 we hear about offering hospitality to an enemy, with whom one vehemently disagrees and would not affirm the views of—‘thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies’.

Then of course there is the problem with the word freedom— including freedom of speech, etc. In the NT the term freedom is mainly used to refer to freedom from sin, and certainly does not mean ‘freedom to commit sin’! It is also sometimes used in a very literal sense to refer to the liberation of captives, whether they be slaves or prisoners. And that brings us to the issue of freedom of speech. And here I think we have an unacknowledged clash of modern values. Namely, when does the exercise of freedom of speech cross the line into disrespect and intolerance of other person’s cherished beliefs?

Take for instance the recent mass murders in Paris of the staff of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo by Islamic terrorists. As widely reported in day after day of the news, this has been seen as an attack on freedom of speech, an attack on fundamental western values. This is a predictable reaction of Western journalists, but it seems that none are asking the harder question— did the magazine cross the line between legitimate critique through cartoons or satire, and fall into something could be called ‘intolerance’ or ‘disrespect’ for someone else’s religion? In my judgment, the magazine did not just satirize Islamic terrorism, and the abuse of Islamic principles and belief by jihadists, it actually satirized Mohammed himself, the Koran etc, just as today we see some of the same sort of thing by strident atheists in America when it comes to Jesus, atheists who not merely ridicule Christian worship, and even deny that Jesus existed, but in fact ridicule anyone who things otherwise. Even on the face of this, this sort of expression of freedom of speech crosses the line into intolerance and disrespect.

Now one could argue, that respect is not owed to some things, some beliefs, some behaviors. Respect needs to be earned, not merely given. For example, Nazism in its older or newer forms doesn’t deserve respect. What it deserves is constant critique. But I don’t think you can make a case for that being the appropriate evaluation of Islam in toto. So the satire of Charlie Hebdo seems to have crossed the lines of even modern secular values in regard to respect and tolerance in regard to another person’s religion.

But there is another dimension to this as well. You cannot absolutize the concept of ‘freedom of speech’. It is part of a larger value system which has to be normed by other key values and even other key freedoms. For example, sometimes speaking freely crosses the line over into libel, and becomes a breaking of the law. Sometimes freedom of speech crosses the line over into straight up telling falsehoods. This can never be acceptable behavior in a society that prizes honesty and truth. Whenever you absolutize one of the principles of Western civilization, rather than balancing and norming it against other ones, you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

And that frankly is exactly what we see in the whole debate about gun control. Frankly, if you go back and read what our founding fathers said about freedom to bear arms, what they were talking about seems clearly to be two things: 1) the right for the colonies and later the states to have ‘a well ordered militia’, and 2) the right of private citizens to have rifles and pistols for hunting and self-protection against the dreaded Redcoats, Indians, Mexicans, etc. In historical perspective this is surely what our founding fathers when they drew up the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence had in mind. What they did not have in mind is private citizens having the right to buy any and all kinds of weapons, including weapons of mass destruction, such as military assault weapons. They might have agreed that ‘a well ordered militia’ facing an invasion etc. might need such weapons, but frankly there is no way you can interpret our founding documents to mean that private citizens should have such a ‘right’. That’s going against both the letter and the spirit of the original documents clearly enough. The founding fathers would have found ridiculous some of the arguments we hear in the recent gun debates. To them it would be like arguing that a private citizen should have the right to have a loaded cannon in their front yards! Nope, that’s a weapon only for the militias, they would say.

My point in this discussion is threefold: 1) to point out how slippery some of the most used and cherished terms are in Western society; 2) to point out that no one modern Western value should be absolutized, rather it must be normed against the other values in the value system it is a part of; and 3) even on the basis of some kind of modern concept of respect and tolerance, satire can go too far and violate other modern values. Freedom of speech cannot be absolutized as the norm of all other norms.