Freedom to like who I want to like

Posted By Pamela on Feb 27, 2008 | 10 comments

I will be the first to admit that I sometimes don’t understand why politicians do what they do, even when they do what is generally considered the right thing.

Last night Hilary Clinton made a complaint against Barack Obama that I just can’t understand.

 Background: Recently, Nation of Islam Leader Louis Farrakhan endorsed Obama.  Obama has said that he didn’t seek this endorsement and has made it clear he doesn’t agree with all of Farrakhan’s beliefs. I’m good with that. This is, in middle-school term’s, akin to what happens when clean-cut cool kid finds out one of the scary smoker chicks has a crush on him and loudly says “Hey, I’m not into her stuff, and I never flirted with her or led her on.” She is allowed to like whoever she wants, and he is allowed to say he’s not interested in reciprocating.

What I don’t get: In last night’s MSNBC debate, Hillary Clinton attacked Obama for not rejecting Farrakan’s endorsement. Returning to middle-school terms, this is akin to expecting the guy above saying the chick isn’t allowed to like him and that he rejects her emotional state and demands that she not like him.

Why I don’t get this: In our particular US form of democracy we are free to like who we like both in inter-personal relationships and in political relationships. They are not required to like us back. In an enlightened, free-speech nation we are each allowed to stand on the roof tops (or at least on our Internet soapboxes) and proclaim our likes and dislikes – even our uninformed likes and dislikes – to whoever is willing to listen. Those listening are not required to agree with us. If Obama rejected Farrakan’s endorsement, Obama would essentially be saying that he didn’t think that Farrakan had the right to proclaim his opinion (his endorsement) without Obama’s approval.

There are deeper layers to this in my naive mind.  Clinton seems to imply that if two people differ on many issues (such as how to handle Isreal), that they can’t still respect one another’s rights to believe what they believe. In Farrakan’s endorsement of Obama, and Obama’s response of “Look, I don’t agree with him and didn’t seek this,” I see Farrakan saying he respect’s Obama and Obama saying Farrakan is allowed to have his opinions, but he (Obama) doesn’t agree with all those opinions.

In today’s fragmenting society I see people constantly throwing up intellectual walls and flinging rocks from behind philosophical barricades without ever engaging in respectful dialogs.   This needs to stop.  Those of you who have been reading this blog for a long time know that I am personally frustrated by the way radical skeptics attack people of faith as “being stupid” and I’m equally angry at radical (typically Christian) people of faith for attacking scientists because their religious documents don’t document the Big Bang and Evolution. It is impossible to hold a dialogue if both sides start from the premise that the other side simply isn’t allowed to believe what they believe and that the other side is stupid.

Productive dialogue must start from a position of mutual respect and the premise that through dialogue it is possible to build understanding and potentially to change opinions or reach a mutually acceptable outcome. I am allowed to say, “I don’t agree with you because…” and state my reasons. I am allowed to say, “I can’t support what you believe because. . . ” and state my reasons. I am not allowed to say, “You aren’t allowed to hold that belief / opinion.”

We can legislate actions – banning murder is a good thing – but we can’t legislate thought.

In demanding Obama reject Farrakan’s endorsement,  Clinton seems to demand that Obama try to limit Farrakan’s right to support whomever he wants to support. In demanding Obama reject Farrakan’s endorsement,  Clinton seems to demand that Obama try to limit Farrakan’s right to respect people who have differing opinions.

Is she implying that I should reject anyone who reads this blog who believes the Earth is 6000 years old because I see clear evidence the Earth is many billion years old? Would she ask me to tell them to stop reading and go somewhere else? (Please, read and learn from these entries, no matter what your intellectual starting point may be.) Is she implying I shouldn’t dialogue with students who think 30-something women who are married should be home raising children instead of out proclaiming science? (Sorry kids, you’re stuck with me.) Where does it end?

Respect does not mean complete agreement on all issues. There are people I respect for their intelligence and compassion whose opinions differ radically from my own. I’m not sure I’d seek their review for the book cover of any future book I write, but they are still people I will talk with, argue with, and agree to disagree with.

And there are times when each of us, like Farakkan, will need to support people who don’t necessarily agree with or even like us. There are many instance where I have to look at a panel of candidates for jobs / offices / appointments where I don’t see anyone who would really represent me, and in many cases all of them would make my life harder (a lot of scientists don’t think money and effort should be “wasted” on public outreach at the level that I do it). That doesn’t mean I should always waste my voice by saying “No one is acceptable.” I have to look at the candidates and say, “This person is someone who I don’t totally agree with, but whose judgments I think will be the most beneficial in this situation.” I would hope that even if the person I support doesn’t like me, that they would respect my decision to support them.

Hilary, what happened to allowing people the freedom to support whom they want to support and believe what they want to believe? What happened to the freedom of speech and the freedom of thought? Why do you demand that we reject people instead of rejecting ideas?

Barrack, keep telling us what ideals you embrace and what ideals you reject (and if you could throw in some specifics on your policy ideas, it would be appreciated).   Keep respecting people and supporting the idea that each of us has the ability to move this nation forward (just please tell us how you want to move this nation forward with some specifics, please).

And please, both of you, show us that you respect the American people.


  1. It’s not about “liking” a person. Obama is basing his campaign of hope and change as unifing the American people, but the church he attends with the pastor he’s close to and now Farrakan are completely divisive. It’s a matter of logic because it raises questions.

  2. Well said.

  3. No Lena, it is ‘swift boat attack’ with racial overtones. Its about scaring white voters.

    Show me that Obama asked or campaigned for Farrakan’s endorsement then you have a story; otherwise its Willy Horton.

    Hillary is better than this; hopefully she doesn’t end up making me ashamed I voted for her.

  4. Michael, I knew that the day would come that any criticism of Obama would be immediately labeled as racist, but I didn’t expect it this soon.

    I do think it’s silly to demand an arbitrary level of stridency in rejecting Farrakahn’s endorsement, but it is legitimate to ask why such a divisive figure likes Obama so much.

    The other thing we need to keep in mind is that everything politicians say is carefully calculated to maximize votes. Their words have nothing whatever to do with their actual beleifs or what they will do in office.

  5. “We can legislate actions – banning murder is a good thing – but we can’t legislate thought.” We do, all the time actually. Let’s take murder. If you kill someone, and are found guilty of course, you will be sentenced X number of years to jail as prescribed by law. If, however, you killed that person because they were of a different race, gender, or sexual orientation as defined by hate crime laws, then your sentence will be greater. The law is obviously trying to steer society to a state of tolerance and acceptance, and one could certainly argue that’s a very good thing, but it’s legislating thought nonetheless.

    The same can be said for hiring or firing of people, again making sure there is no form of discrimination. Sadly, we legislate thought day in and day out, and I think the pattern is for more of it.

  6. I was watching that part of the discussion last night. My take was that Obama did say that he did not seek Farrakan’s endorsement but supported his right to free speech. Clinton noted that in one of her races for the Senate that she rejected the support of an anti-Semitic group.

    I haven’t watched that section of the discussion again (is that supposed to be a link to video above?), but I felt that it was a matter of degree of rejection. I didn’t feel that Clinton was attacking Obama on that point or demanding.

    I’ve tried explaining to my kids that one of these two people will be the Democratic nominee for President. When that happens, whichever one is not the nominee will wholeheartedly endorse and support and campaign for the other. They have a lot in common. They really don’t want to be attacking each other.

    But they have to find ways to show how they are different. This is one way where they differ by degree. Clinton feels right saying that she rejects the support of a group she feels is wrong. It’s that offensive to her. I might defend your right to say something, but I don’t want to be associated with you because your views are so contrary to mine. I saw this less as an attack and more as a way of distinguishing the candidates.

    I agree with you, Pamela, that society has grown too divisive. But sometimes you have to put your foot down and say “No, you’re wrong. I don’t accept that view.” I don’t think that means you can’t talk and try to persuade.

    But sometimes you decide to just not argue over it. I know that there are some topics where I and someone I love are on opposite sides (evolution is one such issue) . We will never change each other’s views. But we love each other anyway.

  7. Pamela L. Gay,

    I really enjoy listening to you on Astronomy cast. I’m glad I discovered that a few days ago. You’re great! As a child, I wanted to be an astronomer. Too bad I failed higher math. As an “old” guy, I still love astronomy. Now that my eyesight is getting worse, it’s nice to be able to listen to astronomy. Thank you.


  8. John,

    “labeled as racist,” you said racist I didn’t.

    I said “swift boating” – playing on RACIAL fears dishonestly; and I expected better from Hillary; I don’t expect better from McCain and Bush & company.

  9. It’s not a matter of “liking,” as someone noted above. It’s more a matter of being careful about the company you keep and who your friends are. Let’s say, for instance, that Larry Flynt or the Aryan Nation endorsed John McCain. You can be certain that either Clinton or Obama would point to that and say, “See what you get for president if you support THAT GUY?”

    That said, you’re right about controversial people being able to support whoever they want. There are just some campaigns that will be more cautious about accepting their support.

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