Can you be simultaneously dismissive and respectful?
Green MP Kevin Hague says all submitters were treated with respect, but admitted that his “feelings” about a teenager’s anti-gay views “would have been obvious”. Do the two statements contradict?
A teenage submitter opposed to gay marriage wrote in a “personal account” that select committee members did not even given her “common courtesy”, accusing Green MP Kevin Hague of being “menacing” to submitters opposed to gay marriage and Labour MP Moana Mackey of “pulling faces”. Grace Carroll’s account seems exaggerated to me, and understandably so—presenting to a select committee is daunting, and it must have felt worse than it really was.
What is fascinating, though, is Mr Hague’s response. Mr Hague doesn’t say he was dismissive of Miss Carroll’s ideas, but it’s obvious that he didn’t even try to understand her perspective. An article on Stuff says he admitted expressing “exasperation”: “I find it offensive. Even more outrageous is her quoting Martin Luther King… I am certain that my feelings would have been made obvious at the time.” Mr Hague clearly saw the submission (which he would have read before the oral presentation) as a foregone conclusion.
Given what she said, it’s easy to see why Mr Hague was dismissive of Miss Carroll. Some may even feel he was justified in being so. But he also says that he “felt all submitters had been treated with respect”. This raises two questions:
1. Can you still be treating someone with respect if you don’t attempt to understand their perspective?
2. Should select committee members put aside their own biases while hearing submissions from the public?
What is respect?
These questions are not simple. As individuals we are all frequently dismissive of others’ opinions and have others be dismissive of ours—but that doesn’t constitute respect. In some cases, disrespect might be justified, particularly if someone is being especially difficult and intolerant. But justified disrespect is still disrespect.
So we take a step back. What does it mean to treat someone with respect?
Respect is one of those concepts we drum into children, but can’t really be explained. Dictionary definitions are approximations at best. One aspect, though, is to treat others how you would want to be treated.
We obviously want our opinions to be taken seriously. Or do we? Is it still a valid thought experiment if the person in question has opinions that are the polar opposite of yours? Even if it is, if you know that your audience strongly disagrees with you, you may not expect to be understood at all—just listened to.
A much lower bar is just not to humiliate them. (Miss Carroll says she was humiliated, but it’s hard to tell without having been there.) This means at least feigning a straight face, and refraining from rolling eyes. Most people would agree that refusing someone a chance to explain themselves by interrupting them mid-sentence (as Miss Carroll accuses Mr Hague of doing) constitutes disrespect. But what if you let them talk, and don’t listen?
The weight of public office
The select committee members are not merely individuals. They are holders of public office, charged with the task of making national legislative decisions. In theory, one might argue, they should approach this task with an open mind to the many views and information available, putting aside their personal biases to make a decision in the national interest, as objectively as they can.
But when we elect our legislators, we elect them exactly because of the opinions they express in their election campaigns. This puts a dagger through Miss Carroll’s argument that the committee “are supposed to represent the whole public”. The Greens (of which Mr Hague is one) were elected to represent those who voted for the Greens, many of whom would eagerly tear apart Miss Carroll without hesitation given the opportunity.
That idea, at its extreme, effectively renders public submissions redundant. If we elect legislators on their opinions, then expect their opinions to rule, what is the point of allowing members of the public to try and change them? The real answer must lie somewhere in the middle. MPs were elected for their core values, so shouldn’t be afraid to stick to them. But they should also lend an ear to what the public has to say. Perhaps the answer is more nuanced: MPs should hear out arguments on the specifics of a policy, but can stop listening if it contradicts their core values.
Personally, I think we should always hear out and try to understand contrary opinions even if we find them offensive or outrageous, but more because I think it leads to more informed opinions than because of respect.
The thing about respect is that its meaning depends on who you ask. So any attempt to discuss whether or not Mr Hague was treating “all submitters with respect”, as he claims, collapses to an argument of definition. He is allowed, of course, to find things offensive and to question sharply to tease things out when he thinks the logic doesn’t stack up. What is more questionable is whether he is still showing the respect he claims to be showing when, as a select committee member, as opposed to just disagreeing, he seems uninterested in trying to understand a submitter’s perspective.