We all know that respect is the sine qua non of interfaith work. The first part of the Interfaith Youth Core’s three-part definition of religious pluralism (via Professor Diana Eck of Harvard University – holla!) is “respect for religious and non-religious identity.” Sounds simple enough. But even though everybody can (I hope) agree that respect is important, not everybody seems to agree on what it is. So here’s your chance, for what it’s worth, to find out what it means to me.
It is my firm belief that respect is largely predicated on honesty. I don’t see how you can ever build any kind of relationship with anybody if you’re not honest with them. Being dishonest immediately puts up a barrier to understanding.
This should be fairly self-evident. Have you ever really respected somebody who made a habit of lying to you?
And did you feel respected by them?
That’s why I’m absolutely convinced that respect never requires dishonesty of any kind. In fact, dishonesty isn’t just non-required; it’s completely incompatible with real respect.
Maybe this all sounds really obvious to you. Maybe this is totally boring. If that’s the case, I apologize. Here’s another Aretha Franklin video to make up for it.
But seriously, I think a lot of people know in their heads that dishonesty is disrespectful, but then they run into a situation where they worry that being honest is going to hurt somebody’s feelings, and so they tell a nice little white lie to smooth things over, and then pat themselves on the back for being so diplomatic.
Sure, maybe that’s diplomacy. But it’s not respect.
I believe that, if pluralism is going to work, we’re going to have to be willing to be honest with each other, even in situations in which we’ve been conditioned to lie (or flatter or equivocate or change the subject or do anything other than just tell the damn truth).
[Disclaimer: this approach might not make you very popular.]
Our liberal democracy is replete with a kind of “Oh, isn’t their culture charming!” attitude towards people of other beliefs. Some people think this kind of extreme cultural relativism is the glue that holds a diverse world together. I think it’s a wedge that drives us apart by immediately separating people into “us” and “them.”
The attitude of many well-meaning interfaithers often reminds me of the attitude that self-congratulatory white people have toward “indigenous peoples” and “non-Western cultures,” in that they are really into celebrating their beautiful artwork and their cute little creation myths, but not so into treating them the same way they treat other white people. And then the white people get to feel like Gold Star Diversity Champions for protecting the lovely native culture from the big Blue Meanie of cold-hearted Western science.
This is the kind of attitude that prevents anthropological researchers from, say, empowering women in so-called “primitive” tribes with knowledge and control of their own reproductive systems, choosing instead to let them hold on to their “quaint” (and incorrect) beliefs about the magical impregnation spirits of the yam harvests or what have you. But I think real respect for other cultures would mean treating them like real people worthy of knowledge and capable of making their own decisions – not treating them like funny little figurines in your curio cabinet, and talking about how “enriched” you and your fellow white people are by their backwards ways. To me, this smacks unpleasantly of the imperialist delight in the “noble savage.”Some people’s conceptions of religious pluralism remind me uncomfortably of that kind of attitude. A lot of people flock to interfaith work (or run away from it) on the assumption that “respect for religious and non-religious identity” means never hurting anybody’s feelings. That’s how we get cloying, unproductive “Kumbaya interfaith,” with everybody hugging and telling each other how beautiful their traditions are. Many people think that gloves-off conversations about controversial topics like LGBTQ rights, abortion, or women’s rights have no place in interfaith work. I don’t think this could be farther from the truth.
I don’t see any incompatibility between respect for identity and open disagreement with many of other people’s beliefs. In fact, I think it’s the condescending, disingenuous sickly-sweetness of the Kumbaya approach that is truly incompatible with real pluralism. Only in an environment of honesty and openness can we build strong relationships with people of other beliefs on a foundation of true respect.
There is, of course, an important distinction between being brutally honest and just being brutal. Honesty is necessary for respect, but it is not sufficient. There are plenty of disrespectful ways to be honest, and how you say things matters almost as much as what you say. Gratuitous scorn is just as inimical to respect as dishonesty is. The key is to walk the line at the intersection of honesty and kindness, without slipping into either sugarcoating on one side or browbeating on the other. This is easier said than done, of course, but I do think it is possible for the gloves to come off without the knives coming out.
So the next time you feel like you have to play a role in order to avoid stepping on someone’s toes, don’t do it. Just tell the truth. Don’t sugarcoat it. Don’t brag about it. Just say what you think, and go from there. Then we will all know the truth, and the truth will set us free.
Chelsea Link is a senior at Harvard University, studying History and Science with a focus in the history of medicine, and minoring in Mind/Brain/Behavior. She is the Vice President of Outreach of the Harvard Secular Society, and the President of the Harvard College Interfaith Council. She also writes for the Harvard Brain and volunteers with the Be the Match bone marrow donor registry. She likes to cook while pretending she’s on Top Chef (Hasty breakfast? More like Quickfire Challenge!), adores word games of all kinds (and was once the President of the illustrious Harvard College Crossword Society), and tends to kill the mood at parties by unnecessarily reciting Shakespeare. This summer she interned at the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard. You can ask her what she’s doing after graduation, but she’ll give you a different answer every time.