What is Respect? November 2, 2010

What is Respect?

Penn Jillette has a quotable line about tolerance and respect in the Toronto Star:

“There’s a big difference between tolerance and respect. Tolerance is you saying something crazy and me smiling and saying ‘that’s nice.’ Respect is when you say something crazy and I say ‘you’re out of your f—ing mind.’ Direct confrontation, direct conversation is real respect. And it’s amazing how many people get that.”

It sounds all well and good, but that type of “respect” will shut down any chance of dialogue. No one on the receiving end of something like “You’re fucking crazy” will ever respond with “Thanks for respecting me.”

I also don’t get how telling crazy people they’re out of their “f—ing mind” is respect. Honesty? Truth? Maybe one of those. But I don’t see any real definition of respect that makes sense in that context.

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  • Ayesha

    I agree. To me, in that context respect would be something like:

    A: “*Something crazy*”
    B: “It’s interesting you say that. I would have thought x instead. Why do you say y?”

  • One of my pet peeves is people that curse and use profane language. That said, I do think it is good to engage in polite discussion those that hold different views. Especially if you view those views to be dead wrong.

  • I think the profanity is unnecessary, but the sentiment is correct. Telling someone you think they’re wrong means you respect them enough to care about what they think and that you respect them enough to think they’d change their mind if you discussed it.

    You would want a friend to care enough about you to point out if you were making a mistake. You’d never bother trying to sit down with Sarah Palin to try to explain why you disagree. Trying to change someone’s mind means that you respect and care about them.

    Leah @ Unequally Yoked

  • I don’t mind a “you’re out of your fucking mind” if it’s followed by a “now let’s go get a beer and get to know each other.”

    Like you, I don’t see much that is inherently respectful about that phrase on its own. It seems to me there’s a middle ground between not acknowledging disagreements and being rude. And I’m glad that most people are able to find that.

    The rest of them are just out of their fucking minds.

  • I interpret as respect means that I think highly enough of you to be totally honest and don’t think you’re either actually crazy or so reactionary that you wouldn’t consider my point of view. And ‘you’re out of your fucking mind’ is very different from ‘you’re fucking crazy.’ One implies a transitory state, the other a permanent one. Plus I’ve definitely heard the former in relatively friendly tones amongst good friends, though usually as a question

  • Joseph Caine

    I absolutely agree with the idea behind the line – honesty, even if it is a bit more harsh, is more respectful than pretending to agree. But yeah, I can see how people would take “out of your f-ing mind” as disrespect.

  • Narvi

    Well, confronting someone is more respectful than pretending that everything’s fine, he’s got that right. But he chose a disrespectful way to do it.

    If someone held crazy beliefs in my presence, I would have asked him why he believed it, and then seen if evidence would persuade him otherwise. I consider that TRUE respect.

  • muggle

    I’m no stranger to cuss words as you all know but, man, how, by any stretch of the imagination, is that respectful? Hasn’t Mr. Jillette heard of respectfully disagreeing?

    If I get to the point of saying you’re out of your fucking mind, it’s a sure sign that I’ve lost all respect for you. Otherwise, the approach would be much more like Ayesha’s above.

  • Me

    I think the point he was making is that you have to have respect for the person and their ideas if you actually take enough interest to interact with them (even if the actual language he used is a bit over the top.)

    If you can just say “that’s nice” and walk away, you think the person is not even worth taking seriously.

  • Silent Service

    Jeff P,

    Too fucking bad. 🙂 I like using my full vocabulary. 🙂


    Penn likes being in your face. Good for him, but that’s not respect. You can tell somebody that you think their ideas are crazy without telling them that they’re crazy. It’s just that sometimes we don’t want too.

  • Actually, I like his point. True, you would certainly have to frame it less harshly than “you’re fucking crazy” if you wanted to continue a dialogue. But the point is that direct confrontation shows that you recognize that the person you’re engaging is an intelligent individual capable of meaningful, rational discussion, and that his or her opinions are valid enough to confront. Saying simply, “That’s nice,” shows that you don’t even respect the person enough to challenge him.

  • Claudia

    I have to agree that saying “you’re out of your fucking mind” isn’t respectful. I understand the intention; when you respect the intelligence of the other you think them worthy of challenge and you don’t want to see them hold on to patently ridiculous beliefs. However there are respectful and non-respectful ways to engage, and accusing someone of insanity doesn’t strike me as the start of a respectful dialogue.

  • JoshBA

    I think there is a difference between courtesy and respect. Courtesy tells you to smile politely and be tactful. Respecting someone is being honest and forthright, even when it is something they might not want to hear, because you believe they have the character to take it.

    There is a reason respect must be earned. It takes effort and observation to know wether someone is deserving of it.

    Tiptoeing around being fully honest—in an attempt to blunt the truth—is not showing respect toward the person you are talking to. It is implicitly acknowledging that you don’t think they can handle forthrightness; and how can that be called respect?

  • I think the point Jillette is making is that not being forthright about disagreement can also be counterproductive, that politeness and “tolerance” do not come without their own liabilities.

    This thing called dialogue only makes sense if both parties are being honest about their views. It would be far better if instead of saying “I’m going to try and not offend or insult my interlocutor” people instead said “I’m going to try and not be offended or insulted myself.” I say we need thicker skins, not duller claws.

  • Valhar2000


    I think Peen would disagree with you there because B is lying to A (assuming that B is not crazy as well, of course). B thinks A is crazy, but won’t tell A that because A might not be able to handle it. If B thought that A was worthy, B would tell it like it is, knowing that A can take it in as well as dish it out. B might do so with fewer swear words and exclamation marks, but still.

    I say this because it’s what I think, and I think Peen may have a similar idea.

    Jeff P:

    Fucketty fuck!

    They are just words that have, in an almost entirely arbitrary manner, being labeled as “bad”. Don’t confuse your personal gross-outs with universal moral imperatives: that never works.

  • Hammurabi

    I think the point he is trying to make is that it is not respectful towards someone to assume that they are incapable of being presented with a differing opinion. In Penn’s circle of friends and family he apparantly expresses that disagreement by telling them they are out of their fucking mind, where as the rest of us may choose to be a little more tactful.

  • @Silent Service,

    It’s OK to use your full vocabulary when you are among friends. It’s just counter productive when talking to those you have never before interacted.

    Penn, being an entertainer, uses profanity as part of his act… although he often does have good things to say. But when you tune into him, you expect him to talk like that. Without that expectation, he would just be rude and ignore by many people.

  • Ayesha

    Valhar: It isn’t a lie to refrain from saying something. I do see your point, but there’s no need to say “you’re crazy” when instead you could have a discussion about the statement and try to understand why it’s been said. To me, that’s respectful… thinking that there might be a logical reason.

  • Daniel

    I really don’t get how Hemant can publish this when just HOURS earlier he called Bill Brady a “crazy.”

    Seriously, “friendly” atheist, take a step back and look at what you write sometimes. Every time I come back to this site it’s “religious morons murder another baby” or “the crazies are at it again,” punctuated with “woe is me why won’t they engage us” or “stop being pricks, everyone-but-me.”

  • Jolo5309

    You are so wrong, you are not even wrong!

    Seriously, you are close, but what you miss is the part of the quote is “when you say something crazy”. I think the level of crazy should determine your response. Something like “children should not be vaccinated because vaccinations are poisonous” should be countered with “you are fucking crazy!”. This is because these beliefs have no real basis in the real world and are they don’t really care about why you disagree with them.

  • JoshBA


    It is a lie to omit a truth. It is in fact called a “lie of omission”. If you think someone is crazy and don’t tell them so, you are now working with an assumption they don’t know you have and don’t know to disabuse you of, thus perpetuating your own possibly incorrect assessment and leaving them at the disadvantage of being “the crazy guy”.

    Keeping with the idea of forthrightness being a key component of respect, if you think there is a good chance they are not crazy but that you are misinformed, then of course calling them crazy wouldn’t be respectful. It would be a lie.

  • That is because you are concerned with “Civility”. Frankly, Penn has it right.

  • Karmakin

    There’s no functional difference between “You’re crazy” and “You’re wrong”. There’s a difference of tone, of course, but I strongly believe that people really overemphasize the tone, when it’s really the content that offends them.

    Personally, I don’t respect religious beliefs. How I mean that, is that when someone tells me that they beleive in God, my response is “No you don’t”. Because usually they don’t. They might believe in some shared emotions or some vague mysterious and entirely ineffectual “higher power”. But the idea of a interventionist deity? No. More of then than not they don’t.

    Because it’s a really stupid idea.

  • Don

    He exaggerates to make a point: respect includes taking someone else seriously enough to tell them when they’re wrong. I wouldn’t say “You’re out of your fucking mind,” (except to my brother), but I might say “I don’t believe any of what you just said.” It’s important for right-wing fundamentalists to hear that they are not the majority.

    I don’t agree with Penn’s definition of tolerance. Intolerance in this context would be religious discrimination, tolerance would be welcoming someone else as an equal member of the community despite their (crazy) religious views.

  • Claudia

    Folks, a bit of self-reflection here. Take a given belief you hold deeply and now imagine that when you tell someone about it they opened with “You’re out of your fucking mind! That’s totally ridiculous.” If you were asked, could you honestly say that you felt you were being treated with respect? Honestly?

    However if you were to get “I’m afraid I disagree with you on this because….” you would be getting the same message and yet you probably would honestly say that you were being treated with respect.

    Tone does matter, and it is in fact possible to have a respectful tone without compromising your core message. Of course, sometimes we don’t want to convince the person we’re talking to because we think they are beyond our help and/or we don’t like them very much, but then that just shows that we don’t really respect them. If you want to convince someone of something, or at least get them to think about their assumptions, then tone matters, whether you like it or not.

    Remember, take it down a notch, for America 😉

  • @Daniel: if someone says something demonstrably insane, or does same, then it’s a valid thing to say. If religion were the kind of topic that was compatible with provable realities, there’d be a lot fewer crazy people involved.

    Plus, taking your examples, if some nutcase kills a child because they think their god told them to, then frankly *fuck* engaging with them (sorry, Jeff P, but sometimes I swear like other people punctuate). They don’t need polite conversation, they need a mental hospital, and fast.

    And this merits the implication that Hemant’s an unfriendly person? How do you think you can tell that from reading blog posts about people who do and say utterly mad shit? If it were ‘Man Kills Child At Perception Of God’s Command, Let’s Look For Ways To Rationalise This’ it wouldn’t make him look friendly, it’d make him – rightly – a maker of excuses and a mainstreamer of ridiculous crap. Some things just *are patently nuts*. There’s nothing to be gained by not pointing that out to the world at large.

    As for ‘Why won’t they engage us’, it sounds perfectly reasonable coming from a member of *the* single least trusted minority group in the US. Anyone who cares to look will know we’re harmless, yet we’re constantly labeled a danger to the fabric of society. Screw that. The Civil Rights movement didn’t achieve *shit* through sitting quietly and being patient. Neither can America’s atheists.

    ON TOPIC: calling someone nuts because of their ideas, as can probably be gathered from the rest of my post, is something I’d only consider valid if the idea were completely and obviously crazy. Geocentrism, that reptile alien conspiracy theory and the like. Less nutty ideas would warrant a ‘who the hell came up with that weirdness?’ – ridiculing the idea, not the person. It only takes a naive person to repeat a crazy idea; it takes a madman (or woman) to harm someone with it.

  • He’s just totally wrong. You may need, at some point, to note that your opponent is insane, particularly if they are. But opening a respectful conversation does not involve that on the front end. It’s more like, say, this:


  • Folks, let’s remember, first and foremost, that Penn is an outspoken magician/comedian who’s biggest claim to fame at this point is a cable series called: Bullshit!

    This quote is keeping in character. The sentiment is accurate, the delivery is pure showmanship.

  • Richard Wade

    Assuming that Mr. Jillette did not go to the Rally to Restore Sanity, it’s really too bad he missed it. I agree with his underlying point that an honest response might come from a deep root of respect, while shining someone on with “that’s nice” is a very shallow kind of courtesy. But it sounds like saying “I’m doing this for your own good” just before you give someone a brutal beating.

    “You’re fucking crazy” immediately expresses so much anger and so much intent to hurt and humiliate, that it overwhelms the receiver’s ability to appreciate the sender’s root motive, assuming that he really was practicing respect, rather than deliberately humiliating and alienating the receiver.

    Very often an insulting attack is nothing more than what it appears to be. Jillette may claim that he’s being respectful, but such a method is self-defeating.

    It’s like the difference between the two basic motives I see in people’s comments on this blog. Some want to persuade, and others only want to express.

    If you want to persuade, try something like, “Wow, what you just said doesn’t make sense to me. Let’s talk about it. If you don’t mind, here’s why it doesn’t make sense to me…”

  • I’m a big fan of Penn Jillette, and have a lot of respect for many of his views and ideas – but not all. In this context I’d have to say that it would depend on the persons involved. Penn Jillette is a person who is not afraid to speak his mind and use *flowery* language. For him to do anything else towards you and your ideas would be a dis-respect. If on the other hand it was someone like me who is generally quiet and non confrontational using that sort of approach would easily be seen as disrespectful.

    Like many things in life, context is all important.

  • Richard L

    It’s in the third definition of the link you provided (only got that far before spotting it, so it might be part of more of the definitions).

    “esteem for or a sense of the worth or excellence of a person, a personal quality or ability, or something considered as a manifestation of a personal quality or ability”

    If you think someone is wrong and don’t tell it directly to them, it’s either disrespectful or plain evil of you.

    It’s disrespectful if you do this because you think they hold their position out of stupidity (a.k.a. lack of reasoning) or tradition (equivalent to calling someone a bigot). One or more of these might be true, but if you go around assuming such things, it’s disrespectful.

    It’s evil if you shut you mouth because you think the other person has a point or lacks evidence – the first is evil because it makes you a liar, the second is evil because of you don’t correct his/her mistake, you will leave them ignorant (and ignorance is a bad thing if it can be corrected).

    Anyway, I agree with Jillette on this one.

    Adding, that it’s perhaps a disrespectful tone, but is tone really a problem compared to lies? I think the truth is more important than how we tell someone what’s true.

  • JoshBA

    I think some of you are making the mistake of assuming debate or persuasion is the goal of all conversation. It isn’t. You can be respectful without begging for a debate or trolling for converts.

    You also seem to conflate being polite with respect while simultaneously acknowledging that you can show respect within your friend group and still be rude or impolitic. Either the state of having respect for someone naturally expresses itself in ways designed not to offend except in the case of familiarity OR such affectations are the product of a different emotion/consideration. I personally believe the latter because I cannot see how, absent all other factors, respect could result in such varied actions conveniently separated by the probable difference in listener reaction.

  • Rhis

    I see Penn’s point.

    I don’t think he’s talking about polite v impolite. Instead, he seems to be asking if we should conceal disagreement.

    The smile-and-nod option often seems to come with the subtext, “that person is so loony that there’s no point in talking to them. If we matched wits on this topic, they’d be entirely disarmed.”

    By contrast, “you’re fucking crazy” seems to be Penn-speak for, “I disagree entirely with everything you’ve said.” Perhaps Penn is ‘too’ bombastic. The key isn’t that he’s rude. It’s that he’s disagreeing openly with the person. The only reason to say anything is if the person might have a worthwhile reply.

  • J. J. Ramsey


    There’s no functional difference between “You’re crazy” and “You’re wrong”.

    Sure there is. “You’re wrong” simply says that someone’s beliefs are incorrect, and that incorrectness need not be due to anything more than normal human fallibility. “You’re crazy” implies that something is unusually wrong with someone, e.g. stupidity, willful ignorance, actual insanity, etc. That’s not a trivial distinction.

  • Scxin

    “You’re fucking crazy” is not respect – it’s an attack, hard to be interpreted as something else. IMO it would be better to simply say “that opinion has no basis in reality – why do you say that?”
    As for myselg, I’ve mostly got the best results by simply looking astonished and saying “so… that sounds really interesting, do you have any evidence?”

  • I think he’s using hyperbole to illustrate a point. If I smile and say ‘that’s nice’ then you’re just treating them the way you treat your crazy uncle with his conspiracy theories, with a condescending pat on the head.

    Confronting the ridiculous belief acknowledges the other person’s viewpoint and opens an avenue for dialogue – though obviously “You’re fucking crazy” is probably the least tactful way that can be done. Again, the man is a comedian – I think it was meant to be hyperbole.

  • Andrew

    I agree with Penn completely.
    @ Don

    I don’t agree with Penn’s definition of tolerance. Intolerance in this context would be religious discrimination, tolerance would be welcoming someone else as an equal member of the community despite their (crazy) religious views.

    Yes Intolerance is religious discrimination, but your example seems of tolerance seems to be the same kind of condescending attitude that Penn was describing. People say or believe crazy things. While you say, “you are an equal member of the community, (that’s nice.)”
    No one ever said their not equal members of the community, but if they are shouldn’t you treat them as an intellectual equal of yours. So when they say some crazy you don’t shy away from telling them so.

  • kyle s.

    i’d much rather be told that i’m out of my fucking mind than have someone bend over backwards to avoid offending my sensibilities.

    cultured dialogue has its place (in front of an audience), but for everyday interaction i think it’s best to just cut to the chase and be direct about what you feel.

  • Stephen P

    He exaggerates to make a point: respect includes taking someone else seriously enough to tell them when they’re wrong.

    Presumably that is indeed the point he was attempting to make. But telling someone they’re wrong is hardly respectful if you are not then prepared to explain why you think they are wrong. And if you kill the dialogue at the very start you are clearly not prepared to do that.

    Could the people defending Penn Jillette explain how killing the dialogue with an insult is an improvement on killing it with an evasion?

  • Nordog

    “As for myself, I’ve mostly got the best results by simply looking astonished and saying “so… that sounds really interesting, do you have any evidence?””

    I like this approach, only I wouldn’t suggest it when dealing with,say, an Apollo Moon Landing Denier, or 9-11 Truther. Those folks bust out all types of “evdience”.

  • I think this shines a light on the “dick” debate in our community: We all know there is a time and place where confrontation, rudeness, or whatever you want to call it is justified, and needed.

    Gay rights, for instance, is one of my pressure points.

    But the question is where do we draw the line? I don’t think every Christian should be called a moron, and I think every “God Hates Fags!”-sign-carrying Christian should be called far worse.

    The line is what we are debating. I guess we all have different boiling points, which may be a good thing.

  • trixr4kids

    Could the people defending Penn Jillette explain how killing the dialogue with an insult is an improvement on killing it with an evasion?

    He is not, in fact, suggesting that every time you disagree with somebody you use a script that starts with the words “You’re out of your fucking mind.”

    “You’re out of your fucking mind” is hyperbole. As others have pointed out, Penn’s rhetoric here is exaggerated. What “You’re out of your fucking mind” means, is, “I think you’re really, really wrong.”

    For the record? I’ve argued with Penn on Facebook. Being a liberal, I think he’s out of his fucking libertarian mind, and he thinks the same of me. But he’s a perfectly nice guy, and not abusive.

  • Nordog

    “But the question is where do we draw the line? I don’t think every Christian should be called a moron, and I think every “God Hates Fags!”-sign-carrying Christian should be called far worse.”

    Sounds right to me.

  • Brian Macker


    I would say:

    Tolerance is when you say something crazy and all I say ‘you’re out of your f—ing mind.’ without chopping your head off, or putting you in prison, psychiatric care, or reeducation camp.

    Dialog is overrated. Who needs dialog if you aren’t violating others rights? Others foolish beliefs are a problem unless they are trespassing against you or endangering you on the basis of those beliefs.

  • Julie

    I agree with Penn. Being forthright and balls-out honest with someone as opposed to patronizing them *is* more respectful by far. I personally would much rather someone say to my face “you’re completely fucking nuts” than “of course, dear.” One makes me want to further the conversation, and one makes me want to punch their teeth in. And guess what, the one that incites a violent reaction doesn’t involve profanity.

  • Sean

    I prefer opening up a disagreement to simply ignoring it and letting it fester. When someone seems to be masking their real opinion to avoid offending me, it drives me completely nuts; I can’t imagine that I’m alone in that (although I can’t imagine everyone feels the same way either).

    That said, exactly what you should say or do is situational. This is why I have trouble caring about conversations regarding tone. I mean, I think we can agree that you don’t show up to Grandma’s funeral and yell “Anyone who believes in heaven is out of their fucking mind.” (well, unless your grandmother requested that before she died).

    I think that in some situations, the ability to say “No, that’s completely stupid” without fear of repercussions or grudges is absolutely invaluable (I talk like this all the time with fellow physicists, with no hard feelings). Obviously, “you’re out of your fucking mind” is going to be productive in far fewer conversations (I’d only use that one if there was a big urgent problem and I need someone to take me seriously immediately).

    @Jeff P

    One of my pet peeves is people that curse and use profane language.

    I have to admit that one of my pet peeves is people who complain about profane language in and of itself. It feels like contamination/purity reasoning, which (ironically, perhaps hypocritically) gives me the heebie jeebies.

  • AxeGrrl

    Claudia wrote:

    Folks, a bit of self-reflection here. Take a given belief you hold deeply and now imagine that when you tell someone about it they opened with “You’re out of your fucking mind! That’s totally ridiculous.” If you were asked, could you honestly say that you felt you were being treated with respect? Honestly?

    However if you were to get “I’m afraid I disagree with you on this because….” you would be getting the same message and yet you probably would honestly say that you were being treated with respect.

    You nailed it Claudia.

  • gsw

    When I was very young, I was taught to humour insane people, so that they did not get violent, and then run away.
    As an adult I have the additional option of being patronising (matronising?). None of this is, or ever was, deemed respect.

    I dislike tolerance – which states you must condone wrong; and prefer acceptance – which states that if it causes no harm then it is none of my business.

    Child marriage rape demands tolerance. Sexual orientation can be accepted as SEP.

  • gribblethemunchkin

    I disagree with Penn.

    The respectful way to deal with asomeone spewing “teh crazy” is not to tell them they are out of their fucking mind. Thats not helpful. Its to say “your ideas are wrong and heres why…..”

    I agree with his point on tolerance though. Crazies should be met head on but you win by attacking the ideas and not the person.

  • Gwenny

    I have to agree with a couple of folks here who seem opposed to “respecting” others like this. Respect is something you earn for me. Although I will respect your right to believe whatever you like, I don’t have to respect YOU. I won’t “disrespect” you, I just don’t care. So believe what you want and I’ll be tolerant of you as long as you stay out of my space, don’t attack me and shut up when I don’t show any interest.

  • Philosos/Not_A_Theist

    Penn Jillete likes to exaggerate. I think a more appropriate response in that situation is “Well that’s your opinion, but facts don’t back it up” or “That doesn’t make any sense at all”.

    It’s pretty much the same feeling that you are expressing, since you obviously think that the person is bonkers, but this way you aren’t being a prick about it. Respect is a two way street.

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