What are the ethical obligations we have to respecting people’s opinions?
I found myself pondering over this question a few weeks ago. I made a new friend. We bonded over our shared love of philosophy, familial pressures, and being a first-year university student. We got on well. That was until I told him I was gay (in an off-the-cuff moment, because I rarely think about these things). I then began hearing about how he harbours a belief that homosexuality is immoral, man is made for woman, all that scripted usual stuff. It was an uncomfortable change of pace, because in my experience, homophobes are hateful and will not hesitate to tell me about how the way I have sex is immoral.
It was the first time I had ever seen a homophobic person in their full humanity, weird as that sounds. Especially because my family members hold homophobic attitudes. Perhaps familial obligations forced me to accept them. I had no such obligations to anybody else.. except this friend. It compelled me to reassess certain stereotypes, as it did my friend. For me, it was how I could reconcile what I knew about homophobia and what I now knew about my friend. For him (presumably), it was how he could reconcile what he knew about homosexuality and what he knew about me.
I once asked this very friend whether he thought religion and morality were intertwined.
“Yes, of course! Before we had secular laws, what led us all? It was religion. Religion told us that homosexuality is wrong and that women must respect men”, he said (I’m quoting this almost verbatim). It was clear that sexual orientation was a huge factor in the way his morality is constructed.
I attempted to correct him; to let him know that religion was in itself socially constructed, and so was shaped by the biases of those who propped said religions up.
Yet, I fell short as my friend kept on telling me about the virtues of religion and how secularism was the worst thing for humankind, as “we lost our morals”. I sheepishly nodded on, all the while waiting for his tirade to end.
This led me to think about the nature of friendship, and the obligations that it holds. And this is not just an interpersonal dilemma; it also has an effect on how we react to social ills perpetuated by our friends. For example, my friend holds homophobic attitudes. Do my liberal tendencies take heed, and I allow him to hold the beliefs he seeks to hold? Or do I, as his friend, attempt to show him the immorality of homophobia itself?
Both perspectives are not easy. If I choose the former, then I will have acted as an enabler to homophobia, and my treatises on the wrongness of homophobia
To what extent can two fundamentally different people share a deep, other-regarding friendship? Does the line begin and end with immutable characteristics such as race, gender, and sexual orientation? Or can differences in those key areas be circumvented?
In other words: black person, would you be friends with a white racist?
What about religious differences, which are fundamental to people and their worldviews – my atheism informs a lot of my opinions towards most cultural constructs, for instance? I suspect there’s a spectrum. Then again, atheists and people of religious inclinations marry each other all the time. It’s a mystery! It’s like there’s a universal morality that doesn’t solely depend on religion or something!
But no, really.
A willingness to listen and be listened to, I find, is the elixir to most communication problems. In this context, listening must come with an active engagement with the person’s history and an awareness of the society we live in. For instance, I may ask my friend why he holds homophobic attitudes. I might even convince him to consciously be more welcoming to members of the LGBTI community other than myself.
In doing so, though, I must be careful to understand that radical shifts in thought do not come overnight. In fact, homophobia is linked so inextricably to misogyny that the dismantling of one makes one rethink the other.
And me, the atheist? Do I just sit and soak in the adulation of being listened to? No.
I listen to understand. I listen to find some connection to my friend via his religion, which shapes the characteristics of himself that I do enjoy. This could go as far as reading up on their religion in order to discuss it with them.
Friendship is important. The friends we keep shape our perspectives and attitudes triplefold, particularly in areas of social interest. In our quest for social justice, let us begin with our friends. Atheist, religious, gay, or straight – it is all rather universal.