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The word “respect,” spelled out in multicolored letters, each tacked onto a cork board with colorful pushpins..

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With universities reeling from months of protests and intense political scrutiny, with many students and faculty feeling threatened and misunderstood, it’s time to revive an old-school value that plays a key role in our democracy: civic respect.

If that sounds ambitious at a time when campus partisans can barely talk to one another, let alone offer courteous regard, it’s because we misunderstand what respect means in a pluralistic society. Civic respect is at once more meaningful and easier to grant than personal esteem, and it offers a way out of the moralizing, paralyzing conflicts that are warping our academic mission and the nation’s political climate.

Most importantly, rediscovering respect doesn’t mean papering over our differences or minimizing the depths of our political disagreements. While it’s true that Americans often agree on more than they realize, something our research shows quite clearly on issues ranging from immigration to abortion, getting to a place of civic respect requires understanding the profound ways that we differ from our political opposites. Counterintuitively, recognizing that we don’t just have policy disagreements but deeply divergent worldviews may be the key to making our civic dialogue less destructive.

It is the clash of these opposing worldviews that often makes it hard to grant respect to others. Worldviews are a combination of core political values, the more specific beliefs associated with them and moral convictions about how society should prioritize certain ideals. Worldviews encapsulate a broad prescription for how individuals should think and behave, and what values should take precedence when public policy inevitably requires tradeoffs. Our research shows how these deep, values-based intuitions transcend individual controversies, creating competing lenses through which people perceive the world— and often misperceive each other.

The issues that have been a focus among liberals in recent decades fall under the broad umbrella of social justice. The social justice worldview is concerned with remedying inequalities, such as racial, gender and economic inequality. It is focused on the societal and global structures that exacerbate unequal outcomes. Conservatives have what we call a national solidarity worldview, which encompasses a variety of beliefs centered on fostering a strong and more cohesive nation. This worldview holds that people should feel a sense of pride in American citizenship, cultivating loyalty to the country while also prizing individual liberty.

It is the moralization of these worldviews that makes them particularly potent. When people ground their fundamental beliefs in what is right and wrong, they experience these beliefs as objective and factual. When people hold beliefs about certain issues that are moral convictions, they are not simply indicating a preference; they are taking a stand for what is right and righteous. It becomes easy to see someone with an opposing view as more than just incorrect or misguided, but fundamentally bad or immoral.

That makes it all the more important that partisans on both sides learn to see their differences less as a function of outright opposition and more as a matter of different moral emphasis. While many liberals believe that national solidarity is good, they do not moralize this view in the same way that most conservatives do. While a surprising number of conservatives believe that social injustice is a real and important problem, they don’t give it the same moral weight that their liberal counterparts do. Even when people from opposing worldviews can find pragmatic common ground on a particular issue, they can still come away with the sense that their political opposites are morally blinkered, unable to see an important truth about the world, and therefore not reasonable allies.

It is the clash of worldviews that erupts so often on college campuses and in our political lives generally. Moralistic worldviews create stark dividing lines. But it is the relentlessness of moralistic worldviews that also blind people to the inconsistencies and ambiguities that are so common in our own moral and political lives.

How do we get people to take off their blinders? This is where civic respect comes in, offering three key disciplines for overcoming our blindness to opposing worldviews. First, civic respect means listening in both interpersonal and impersonal ways to those with different views. Civic respect may arise in personal encounters, but it also may occur when one is listening to the news or reading about the views of others. We are not obligated to always listen, but we must have seriously considered the views of others before dismissing them.

Second, civic respect means avoiding political stereotyping—listening to those who disagree without assuming the worst about their motives. Political stereotyping is tempting because it short-circuits the need for self-reflection. If our opponents are morally bankrupt, we’re under no obligation to extend them the civic courtesy of listening and considering their views. Learning to see others not as immoral but as simply having a different moral emphasis can go a long way in reducing stereotyping.

Third, civic respect means not assuming that citizens who vote differently do so because they are poorly informed, ignorant, or misled. According to our data, the largest point of agreement among liberals and conservatives is that they each think, by large margins, that opposing partisans are ignorant and misled by the media. If you think that opposing partisans voted the way they did because of ignorance or misinformation, you implicitly assume that if these voters had correct information or more education, they would think and vote like you.

This may be the most important aspect of civic respect, since to attribute opposing views to ignorance or misinformation is a denial that others can legitimately arrive at different views from your own. An assumption of ignorance or malice runs contrary to the pluralism that marks thriving, peaceful liberal democracies.

Our research shows that the majority of citizens believe in civic respect in the abstract, but when asked to apply it to opposing partisans, their commitment to respect quickly withers away. Of course, some people can grant civic respect to others—those citizens who are less partisan, whose worldviews are less tightly held, and who do not moralize very much. Yet this still leaves plenty of people who are unwilling to grant civic respect, even as they agree that the concept is important to a functioning democracy.

People often point to more education as the solution to the problem of so many of our conflicts: if we better understood the other side, then our conflicts would supposedly lessen. We are not against more understanding of important social and political issues, obviously, but if we are going to speak and listen to each other respectfully, we need to understand ourselves and our democracy at least as much as we understand people with different views.

That means, first, understanding that the world is full of moral conflicts that are not readily solved—including those within our own political and social views. Acknowledging internal conflict is one of the most important steps in restoring respect for others. How do we reconcile our love of country with our country’s history of racism? How do we resolve our insistence that climate change be addressed urgently with our keen desire to travel all over the world? Moralizing worldviews, with their totalizing expectations, do not allow for such internal inconsistencies and conflicts of conscience. But if we understand the tradeoffs that we all have to navigate in our own lives and in our own convictions, we may be able to understand them in others and resist the temptation of partisan morality tests.

Second, moralized worldviews lead us to dichotomize—dividing people and ideas into good or bad, right or wrong—which makes it impossible to understand how multifaceted and pluralistic the world really is. We need to understand that holding moralized worldviews blocks our ability to learn, to see other viewpoints as defensible or even compelling.

If we and our students better understood ourselves, we would have to acknowledge the large gap between why we believe in respect and why we struggle so much to grant it. And if we are going to find a way to increase respect, we need to start with this self-understanding. A college education should surely in part be about understanding the world, but to get there, we need to do a better job of helping our students understand their own complex beliefs and inconsistencies, to understand internal conflict not as a failing, but as something deeply human.

Finally, we can also look to democratic education for help: The more strongly people believe in the abstract principles associated with democratic rights and the rule of law in a pluralist system, the more tolerant people are of groups they strongly dislike. Tolerance can be taught using curricula that focus on people’s understanding of basic rights and the rule of law. Just as tolerance can be taught, so too can respect. We need to teach our students not only to accept pluralism and political diversity—given that diverse points of view are a reality in any democratic system—but also to use their own inconsistencies as a way to more fully understand political opposites. Doing so will break down political stereotyping and the default position that the other side is ignorant and misinformed.

Jeff Spinner-Halev is the Kenan Eminent Professor of Political Ethics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Elizabeth Theiss-Morse is the Willa Cather Professor of Political Science at the University of Nebraska- Lincoln.

They are the authors of the recently published Respect and Loathing in American Democracy: Polarization, Moralization, and the Undermining of Equality (University of Chicago Press, 2024).

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