Must I respect everyone, even the contemptible? “Respect” is a confusing term as it mixes the ideas of earned worth and inherent worth. The first applies to some quality that is admirable, worthy of emulation. The second applies to how we value and treat everyone, including the most reprobate, and has no reference to their character, actions, or abilities, but is their worth based solely on their humanity. A better term might be treating with dignity (or more profoundly, cherishing).
Respecting a person’s ideas also reflects this distinction. The more closely a person identifies with or values an idea, the more carefully we must be in treating that idea with dignity, not because it is estimable, but because the person (including his/her ideas) deserves to be treated humanely. This is true even if the idea is patently false (1+1=3).
Clearly, then, treating an idea with dignity has no correlation with agreeing with that idea. We have sadly confused these two notions, thinking that the more morally outrageous or factually inaccurate an idea, the more our response should reflect this in how strongly we reject it. If we engage with the idea in a calm and non-judgmental way, it seems that we are legitimating it in some way.
There is some validity to this idea, since the less internally reactive we are to an idea, the more likely we are to put up with it and eventually welcome it. As Pope said so famously:
Vice is a monster of so frightful mien.
As to be hated needs but to be seen;
Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace.
Or as a wiser one said, “You who love the Lord, hate evil” (though I suspect he meant to hate the evil in ourselves rather than the evil in others)
It is true that the more destructive or dangerous an idea, the more reactive we should feel towards it, but we cannot reverse this correlation: my feelings of repulsion towards an idea never prove that idea to be bad. Our fears (sense of danger) can keep us safe, but only if our fears reflect reality or truth. Unfortunately, our fears rarely come from a deep analysis of truth, but are usually our reaction to life experiences, cultural and family indoctrination, personality, and other such formative events. Generally speaking, the greater our emotional reaction, the less accurate our analysis and measured our response. Fear clouds insight and crashes dialogue.
Humility and faith call us to a better way of being and interacting in which we listen and seek to understand those with whom we disagree because we may be the one who is wrong or because they have some powerful and key insight hidden in their otherwise mistaken view or simply because we need to learn to love better than we do now. We have nothing to fear from a greater understanding and empathy of one another.
However, if the discussion circles around an area of our own wounding, we must take care of ourselves, often by simply avoiding such interactions or people. We are like sick patients in a hospital that must gain strength before being exposed to the germs that are safe for the healthy. And we must keep in mind that others with whom we interact may also have deep wounds around a topic that can be inflamed by slight touches. We are all broken people whether we recognize it or not, so walk gently.
And walk humbly. Sometimes 1+1=3 as any couple with a newborn can tell you.