Tag Archive: respect

Criticism as respect

The Open Society – and by this I mean both the society and the book – is opposed not just to this or that authority, and not just to Plato, Hegel, and Marx. It is opposed to the very idea that there can be anything like cognitive authorities whom we can rely upon or the truth.

So if we are going to understand open society as scientific or rational society, then we must also understand science and rationality in Popper’s terms. We must think of science not as an institutionalized hierarchy of experts, but as a never-ending process of problem-solving in which we propose tentative solutions to our problems and then try to elim­inate the errors in our proposals. We must think of rationality not in terms of justification, but in terms of criticism. And we must think of criticism not as an offense, or as a show of contempt or disdain, but as one of the greatest signs of respetct that one mind can show to another. [47]

The hypocrisy of “tone”

Before quitting the subject of freedom of opinion, it is fit to take some notice of those who say, that the free expression of all opinions should be permitted, on condition that the manner be temperate, and do not pass the bounds of fair dis­cussion. Much might be said on the impossibility of fixing where these supposed bounds are to be placed; for if the test be offence to those whose opinion is attacked, I think experience testifies that this offence is given whenever the attack is telling and powerful, and that every opponent who pushes them hard, and whom they find it difficult to answer, ap­pears to them, if he shows any strong feeling on the subject, an intemperate opponent. But this, though an important consideration in a practical point of view, merges in a more fundamental objection. Undoubtedly the manner of assert­ing an opinion, even though it be a true one, may be very objectionable, and may justly incur severe censure. But the principal offences of the kind are such as it is mostly impossible, unless by accidental self-betrayal, to bring home to conviction. The gravest of them is, to argue sophistically, to suppress facts or arguments, to misstate the elements of the case, or misrepresent the opposite opinion. But all this, even to the most aggravated degree, is so continually done in perfect good faith, by persons who are not considered, and in many other respects may not deserve to be considered, ignorant or incompetent, that it is rarely possible on adequate grounds conscientiously to stamp the misrepresentation as morally culpable; and still less could law presume to interfere with this kind of controversial misconduct. With regard to what is commonly meant by intemperate discussion, namely invective, sarcasm, personality, and the like, the denun­ciation of these weapons would deserve more sympathy if it were ever proposed to interdict them equally to both sides; but it is only desired to restrain the employment of them against the prevailing opinion: against the unprevailing they may not only be used without general disapproval, but will be likely to obtain for him who uses them the praise of hon­est zeal and righteous indignation. Yet whatever mischief arises from their use, is greatest when they are employed against the comparatively defenceless; and whatever unfair advantage can be derived by any opinion from this mode of asserting it, accrues almost exclusively to received opinions. The worst offence of this kind which can be committed by a polemic, is to stigmatise those who hold the contrary opinion as bad and immoral men. To calumny of this sort, those who hold any unpopular opinion are peculiarly exposed, because they are in general few and uninfluential, and nobody but themselves feel much interest in seeing justice done them; but this weapon is, from the nature of the case, denied to those who attack a prevailing opinion: they can neither use it with safety to themselves, nor, if they could, would it do anything but recoil on their own cause. In general, opinions contrary to those commonly received can only obtain a hearing by studied moderation of language, and the most cautious avoidance of unnecessary offence, from which they hardly ever deviate even in a slight degree without losing ground: while unmeasured vituperation employed on the side of the prevailing opinion, really does deter people from professing contrary opinions, and from listening to those who profess them. [ch. II, 68-9]

Niceness is the enemy of fairness

The problem, of course, is that niceness is overrated as a virtue. Many cultures are nice. The Southern antebellum aris­tocracy was marvellously well-mannered; its members left tasteful calling cards, entertained gracefully, and conducted their personal affairs with the utmost discretion. But they had few other virtues; in fact, it was the practice of niceness that helped to keep other values, such as fairness, at bay. Fairness sometimes requires that surfaces be disturbed, that patterns of cordiality be broken, and that people, rudely and abruptly, be removed from their place. Niceness is the enemy of fairness.

Respecting others’ opinions

The aim in an open society is not to put up with ideas with which we disagree. It is to take them seriously and to criticize them—not necessarily as a way of condemning them, but as a way of trying to understand them, and of testing whether or not they are true, and learning from them, even if learning from them means learning how and where they go wrong.

This is what Popper meant when he said that open society is ‘based on the idea of not merely tolerating dissenting opinions but respecting them.’ Open society is based on respect for other people, for their freedom and autonomy as rational agents—or, as Kant would have put it, for people as ends in themselves. It is not that we regard their ideas as evils that we have to tolerate for civility’s sake. And it is not even that we regard them as the ideas of other people who have just as much right to ideas as ourselves. That, at best, would be paternalism. And it would have nothing at all to do with a recognition of our own fallibility. Respect, on the contrary, means that we take the dissenting opinions of others seriously, and that we regard them as possibly true. It means, in fact, that we treat them as potentially our own—since we want to discover the truth and since we recognize that we may be in error—and it means, for this reason, that we try to do everything in our power to criticize them and to show that they are false. [33]

Tolerance vs. respect

Tolerance leads to our allowing differences to exist. But respect leads to our trying to learn from them. And here, the attempt to learn from beliefs that differ from our own may well conflict with the kind of negative freedom for which toler­ance is a necessary condition. I do not, in an open society, ask to be left alone in the security of my own beliefs. And I do not leave others alone in the security of theirs. I try, on the contray, to improve my situation by learning from others and from what they believe. This is not tolerance. It is respect. And I would even say that the ideal of open society is more closely aligned to positive freedom that it is to negative freedom … . [31-2]