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On Opinions and Entitlement

In the weeks before same-sex marriage was recognised in England and Wales, I spotted a local man handing out leaflets on behalf of the “Coalition for Marriage” campaign. Aware that this group was leading a crusade against Equal Marriage, I initially hurried past him, reluctant to engage. But half way home I turned around, walked all the way back there and challenged him – politely but robustly. The man seemed aghast and pleaded in a querulous voice that he was “entitled to his opinion”, the implication being that it was highly impertinent of me to question him.

The notion that everyone is “entitled to their opinion” is often quoted, frequently misused and invariably insincere. Nobody is “entitled to their opinion” if this claim is cited in an attempt to deflect criticism – as it usually is. If we all demand the right to share our views in public, without also expecting and accepting dissent, we do not really support the idea that everyone is “entitled to their opinion” at all; rather, we believe that we should be allowed to impose our own views upon others without reproach. The claim that we are “entitled to our opinion” is a professed appeal to the principles of liberty and free speech, when in reality it undermines those principles.

The philosopher Jamie Whyte includes the notion that we are “entitled to our opinion” in his study of logical fallacies. He argues that people generally use this statement when they are cornered, in an attempt to avoid criticism or to save being forced into a position in which they might have to change their mind; so when people say “I’m entitled to my opinion” what they generally mean is “I don’t wish to hear the evidence that contradicts my opinion” – a childish and petulant response to challenge.

Easily-observable examples of these dubious tactics occur frequently on social media; someone publishes a post relaying an ill-informed view on a particular topic, then becomes absurdly angry and self-righteous when others point out their imprudence. This individual will often verbalise the notion that they are “entitled to their opinion” in an attempt to silence the naysayers and the detractors who would seek to challenge them.

Fascinatingly, one indication that many people in fact apprehend the inherent feebleness of the argument is that the statement is often turned on its head and used to imply that an adversary is wrong. It is not uncommon for someone to put an end to a debate by saying “well, I guess you’re entitled to your opinion” – in doing so, they insinuate that their antagonist is misguided and by implication they somehow assume the moral high ground by stepping away from the conflict. While this tactic is slightly different (and if anything more irksome), the result is in fact the same – debate is silenced by the suggestion that further dispute is not acceptable and that to continue the discussion would be impolite and inappropriate.

While we are all free to take up a position and to argue for it, none of us are “entitled” to make any kind of statement – especially a provocative one – unless we are willing to accept that it might be challenged; in response to the challenge, our choices are then to uphold our opinion by producing robust reasoning in its defence, or to reconsider our position in the face of conflicting evidence. I would argue that unless we are willing to do either or both of those things, then we are not “entitled to our opinion” at all – or at least, we are not entitled to broadcast it; opinions without reasoned justification are at best vacuous and at worst dangerous.

One of the biggest dangers in assuming that everyone is “entitled to their opinion” is the related notion that everyone’s opinion is equally valid in all fields. This is a mindset that is often endorsed in our schools, with the best of intentions but perilous consequences. As Australian philosopher Patrick Stokes, wrote in 2012:

The problem with “I’m entitled to my opinion” is that, all too often, it’s used to shelter beliefs that should have been abandoned. It becomes shorthand for “I can say or think whatever I like” – and by extension, continuing to argue is somehow disrespectful. And this attitude feeds, I suggest, into the false equivalence between experts and non-experts that is an increasingly pernicious feature of our public discourse.

Stokes goes on to explore the theme of validity by pointing out that we use the term “opinion” very broadly in our everyday language. It is true, he argues, that opinions in relation to taste or personal artistic preferences are highly subjective and largely unprovable; I might think that my husband looks best in the colour blue, but he might feel differently – there is no verifiable right answer. But, as Stokes points out, we also use the word “opinion” in relation to views that are “grounded in technical expertise, such as legal or scientific opinions.”

While it might be merely a pleasant waste of time for us to debate the niceties of colour, dress or artistic taste, it is a grievous mistake to assume that all legal or scientific matters are similarly open to discussion without the relevant experience, a rigorous understanding and demonstrable knowledge. “Perhaps that’s one reason” says Stokes “why enthusiastic amateurs think they’re entitled to disagree with climate scientists and immunologists and have their views ‘respected’.”

In an increasingly self-conscious age, in which a hijacked passenger will ask for a photograph with his hijacker and an ever-growing number of people seem convinced that we all possess the heartfelt desire to behold a portrait of their dinner plate, one thing seems clear: we are all becoming ever more persuaded not only that we are entitled to impart our opinions but also that the world is entitled to hear them. Yet we must accept the fact that our narcissism does not occur in a vacuum – that others will require us to justify our thoughts and our attitudes; if the opinions we feel so entitled to share are entirely lacking in substance, we have only ourselves to blame when our folly is exposed.

 

Emma C Williams is a teacher, a freelance writer and author. Follow her on Twitter: @emma_c_williams or visit her website www.emmacwilliams.com

Emma C Williams
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Emma C Williams

Emma Williams is a private Latin tutor and a teacher in a large comprehensive school in Woking, Surrey. She is also a freelance writer and author. You can find her on twitter @emma_c_williams.
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Emma Williams is a private Latin tutor and a teacher in a large comprehensive school in Woking, Surrey. She is also a freelance writer and author. You can find her on twitter @emma_c_williams.

12 Comments

  1. Stephen N Green says

    Ach, disagree here. The intention of a person handing out leaflets on a political matter is not to persuade in that moment and therefore be open to rigorous debate, it is to use literature to introduce people to other perspectives and then allow them to do the work of evaluating the arguments, should they find it challenging or interesting.

    It’s ridiculous to expect every person in such a position have a responsibility to engage with every other person who wishes to debate them on the spot, as they form up in a self-righteous line around the corner.

  2. The prose and thinking here are superior. The first half of the essay is insightful and correct — people often use free speech rights as a justification to stop speaking or to ask others to. That is dangerous and disingenuous, and there’s nothing I love more than someone who can spot common, disingenuous, and dangerous rhetorical fallacies. Note similarly that people who are “just getting the conversation going,” are often offering the statement to justify backing away from their position.

    That said, I don’t see how the misuse of speech justifying statements speech is connected to the ridiculous idea that all opinions are equal. I suspect it’s the argument Emma really wanted to make, because she concludes with it. So this essay troubles me. It’s elitist. More importantly, its major premise contradicts its minor. The minor premise is that folks use free speech arguments to undermine speech. Its major premise is that ordained elites have special knowledge about who has the right to speak, but that again undermines speech.

    Should good arguments be rewarded with special jobs for special-ists? Sure. But the idea that already-ordained experts are the ones who enjoy the right to speak is exactly what reduces competition in the marketplace for ideas. Debates almost always need new entrants.

    Matters of taste are arguably less in need of free speech rights and ethics than matters of empirically observable and verifiable implications. So it is much more important, if we are going to be consistent about not letting speech rights get degraded by disingenuous rhetoric, that we maintain speech rights over matters of science and professional expertise than over whether I like General Tso’s Beef. Trump supporters, creationists, gay haters, anti-vaxers all have not just rights but a duty to speak. They make experts think harder and justify their own rights to speak in exactly the mode Emma is attempting here.

    It would be a shame if they stopped. And we’d all end up a lot dumber.

  3. Everybody wants to have a “conversation”. And we all know what that means: It means STFU while I talk.

    At first glance, Emma may say, “That’s exactly what I am talking about! There is way to much uninformed, unchallenged opinion spewing these days.”

    Fair, enough. The noise of opinion-entitlement is can be overwhelming.

    But I can’t help but get the feeling the Emma wants us all to yield our beliefs and opinions to the latest TED Talk. Especially when she writes: “Perhaps that’s one reason” says Stokes “why enthusiastic amateurs think they’re entitled to disagree with climate scientists and immunologists and have their views ‘respected’.”

    “Oh wise scientific overlord, your accomplished, expertise dazzles me! And your casual, relaxed delivery (with a leather jacket no less!) ensnares me! Tell me what to think! Please…guide me.”

    But wait a second. How many times have the scientists/economists/experts/academics screwed up over the past 10 years? [The financial crisis, Rise of Trump, Inability to replicate social science experiments etc. etc. Here’s my favorite: The experts that pushed statin drugs on all things cholesterol have now begun to backtrack, and acknowledge that there are some significant side-effects with these drugs. And it just so happens that these experts have come to this realization now that the patents are expiring.]

    To me, I am far less threatened (and less annoyed) by the dude on the street corner with a sign. It’s the experts that piss me off.

    Perhaps you stop wasting your time challenging demonstrators with no persuasive influence.

    And perhaps, I should stop wasting mine.

    • Onlooker from Troy says

      Bitfu,

      Yes, that was exactly what set me off about this otherwise useful essay. This implied deference to the “experts.”

      “Experts” and academics are scrambling to stifle the rest of us in this age of the internet, with its easily accessed information and communication between us mere commoners. Many of them are being exposed for the charlatans that they are. And they are increasingly being displaced by smart but un-credentialed people who put the lie to their poor science and fallacious arguments.

      The proverbial curtain of Oz is being pulled back. They can’t have that.

  4. xerocole says

    If my father and I did not allow each other to be entitled to his own opinion on several controversial subjects, I’m afraid we wouldn’t enjoy the relationship we have today.

    “The man seemed aghast and pleaded in a querulous voice that he was “entitled to his opinion”, the implication being that it was highly impertinent of me to question him.”

    So, he was both embarrassed and offended by your challenge? You seem to contradict yourself here, yet this event kicks off your entire argument.

    “…we must accept the fact that our narcissism does not occur in a vacuum – that others will require us to justify our thoughts and our attitudes; if the opinions we feel so entitled to share are entirely lacking in substance, we have only ourselves to blame when our folly is exposed.”

    That argument can’t be applied to the man in the train station because you never heard his opinions. He declined to engage with you, but how could you know if he hadn’t engaged with others before you. Perhaps he was tired of arguing. In that instance, you were the narcissistic one, expecting a person to engage with you and becoming so offended when he refused that you wrote this essay to complain about him.

    Of course, you have the right to accost a man handing out religious leaflets. And he has the right to say “fuck off”. No rights have been infringed upon. You just seem to think anyone sharing political views in public has a duty to hold a political debate whenever anyone challenges them. You suggest that if they don’t, their opinions clearly lack substance.

    If a person doesn’t want to engage, it can certainly be frustrating, but it has little bearing on the validity of their views. Many brilliant people are terrible public speakers and would be utterly useless in arguing with less informed individuals in a public setting. Having personally seen young people try to have serious debates on college quads while standing around, uncomfortable and unprepared and self-conscious, I firmly believe that the phrases such as “you’re entitled to your opinion” and “agree to disagree” are truces from which everyone benefits. Without those, there would be endless verbal battles with only bullies and victims, which has everything to do with one’s own ability to approach people and berate their views and nothing to do with actual arguments. The phrases are not about entitlement, they are appeals to etiquette and preserving relationships.

    If that man had engaged with you and argued for a while until you became tired and wanted to leave, how would you feel if he decided he had won the argument simply because he wore you down? When does your responsibility to defend your views take a backseat to your own physical limits?

    • Stephen N Green says

      “Excuse Me Sir, I saw your sign and just wanted to say, the end of the world is NOT nigh! What evidence do you have for that claim? You’re frightening people, just what evidence do you have God exists and this is a part of his plan?”

  5. Carly Hurst says

    I like the initial thrust of the post, that people should accept that any public utterance could result in it being scrutinised, criticised and dissected. I agree. Unfortunately I think at present (in Australia) we do a really poor job of polite argument. Often where contentious issues are discussed we fail to follow Emma’s example in the story above and we shut down unpopular speech rather than engage constructively.

    I’ll give a pertinent example. I disagree with the “Equal Marriage” movement. However I am very reluctant to discuss my ideas publicly for fear of not a robust argument but of being affected personally and most of that is fear about it affecting me professionally. I don’t think it’s worth my job to have conversations about this topic in open air. And I don’t believe this is an unreasonable fear given the way that some (admittedly mostly high-profile) people have been targeted (e.g. Brendan Eich). This is an example of where my speech is shut down.

    I think we need to be very careful to not dissuade speech, especially with ideas we strongly disagree with, even when they may be poorly articulated – lest we unintentionally stifle our fellow citizen’s speech. I think those of us that value free speech highly should even be willing to bend over backwards to gracefully encourage opinions and coax out further dialogue, even when it is frustratingly rebuffed.

  6. I have heard people use the phrase “I’m entitled to my own opinion” in two different ways. Mostly I encounter it when debating conspiracy theorists (of the anti Western ilk) or Afrocentric/black radicals (of the Black Lives Matter, we are Kings & Queens ilk).

    Whenever I use evidence and logic to challenge their claims and don’t melt away when denounced as a racist or a Mossad operative. Only then do I hear “well I have got a right to my own opinion”

    The other time I have heard it used is when someone who fears that their opinion may get them in trouble. Neo Nazis spouting their bigoted crap tend to pull the “I have a right to my own opinion” especially when they fear losing their anonymity and facing the full might of the left wing machine and or the law.

    Perhaps the person in the article who was preaching against same sex marriage was afraid of Emma and what kind of wrath she may be able to conjour in the name of silencing a modern day witch. EG:a bigot.

    Perhaps he wasn’t running from the debate as much as he was fearful that a charge of bigotry would be bought against him.

    “Pleading in a querulous voice” doesn’t sound like the behavior of a political blowhard, retreating behind a get out clause, as much as it sounds like a fearful man. A man who fears the modern witch burning tactic of public shaming, petition, contacting of employers and perhaps even the law.

    Perhaps Emma’s position of power as a woman arguing the accepted liberal orthodoxy intimidated him in to querulous retreat rather than him being unable to argue his point and instead using a get out clause.

    Just a thought

  7. It’s a thought-terminating cliche used by cowards to back out of an argument. Cheap shots around appeals to the pseudo-authority of science a cheap article make. Scientists are human and make mistakes, some are liars and con artists with their grant money, see the way many predictions fail utterly. We refuse to worship these people like priests, they are not divinely in touch with the Ultimate Truth, it’s a WIP. There are always two opposing sides to a story, even within science. That you don’t know this only serves to make you look like the idiotic one, not the people who question things (critically). Everything should be questioned, no exceptions, and as far as personal choices go (medical, financial etc), those choices have a human right to be respected. This is a subtle distinction so I’m hardly shocked you failed to see it.
    However, your gullibility in thinking that credentials amount to expertise is pathetic. A piece of paper is just that, who’s demonstrating faith now? Most experts are wrong, factually. Look at the studies of wine tasters or stock managers. You know, the evidence? They tend to make it up as they go along, and only the top-performers can actually predict anything. Ignoring common sense, in particular, can get people killed, there was a story about a co-pilot who prevented a crash because the pilot made a mistake, and if the self-styled ‘experts’ cannot convince the laymen in an argument, what good are they? Public policies are based on their opinion, but that opinion must have a rigorous basis, and this is lacking. An expert’s opinion has no value over the layman, because they can both be wrong, in the same way a celebrity’s politics aren’t true and a King may know less about his country than a peasant.
    Get over yourself and grow some perspective.
    If you start arguments with people in the street, they’re bound to think you’re nuts. Nobody is obliged to engage with you or give up their precious time, Princess. I would bet good money you’re an SJW trying to impose your niche minority politics into every social event, an antisocial behaviour. Tu quoque doesn’t exempt you from the standards of politeness in the First World, we can tell from reading this you’re a very angry person (walking all the way back to harass an old man? how brave).

  8. Pingback: SJW on expertise, entitlement to opinions and bullying | Philosophies of a Disenchanted Scholar

  9. Lindsay says

    One would be of the opinion that readers of this journal and article have considered many things and argued just as many. In the process they may have modified their opinions or may have had them reinforced. As such one could be confident in assuming they have the ability to state and support their point.

    Our world is made up of people of varying skills and levels of the same. Me, I have no doubt I am the best in the world at something – just haven’t come near to discoverying what it is – and conversely the worst in the world at other things – unfortunately succinctness might be one . Some people may have opinions but are not able to articulate his/her reasons. They just don’t possess the ability to argue their case. Me I am not so good at face to face, but are better in writing. Do these people not have the right to their opinion?

    Of course they do. Our task is to persuade them without belittling. Which is almost always the case in mainstream media, particularly TV and radio and of course politics.

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