The Right Opinion

There’s something I’m tired of hearing.

I get it all the time. Mostly because my interactions with other human beings take place almost exclusively in the classroom, where I talk to teenagers, or on the internet, where I talk to people on the internet. And as we all know, these are, far and away, the two most annoying groups of people on the planet. (Yes, I’m aware the second group includes me. Seeing as I’ve spent my entire life after the age of two in schools, in one way or another, I think I’m an honorary member of the first group, too. Of course I know I’m annoying. That’s beside the point.) And this is one of the most annoying things that people say. It’s annoying because it is an attempt to end discussion and debate, to validate the worst garbage that comes out of people’s brains: the thoughtlessness, the prejudice, the spite, the hate, the idiocy, the vapidity and superficiality — all of it. And I’m tired of it. So, by the power vested in me by my love of both thought and communication, and the energy and time vested by me in both of these aspects of human existence; by the authority I have gained through fifteen years of teaching, by the resentment and impatience that has built in me all that time and which has granted me the sheer gall to presume to say something like this, I hereby declare and assert:

Nobody has the right to an opinion.

That’s what people say that I’m tired of hearing. They say it in several different ways: Everyone has the right to their own opinion. That’s just what I think. We just have a difference of opinions, and we’ll have to agree to disagree. I’m entitled to my opinion.

That last one is the worst. That last one is the one that got me thinking about this subject for this blog. Because it says it all, doesn’t it? Entitled. I’m entitled to my opinion. Apart from the political baggage that has been strapped onto that word through the labeling of certain parts of the social safety net as “entitlements,” which apparently require “entitlement reform,” the word “entitled” contradicts itself. It means that you inherently deserve something, that it is yours by natural right; but when we call someone entitled, what we mean is that they don’t at all deserve the thing they claim, that they have it through underhanded means, or without justification — often because it was given to them without effort. That they didn’t earn what they feel “entitled” to.

And I’m thinking now that people aren’t entitled to have the opinions they claim to have.

I think you have to earn the right to have an opinion.

Not to voice it; once you have it, you have the freedom of speech and of the press, and you can shout your opinions from the rooftops — even if those opinions are offensive or unpatriotic or even inflammatory. You can post it on Facebook and you can whisper it to yourself in a movie theater and you can march around the streets wearing it on a sandwich board and you can even hold a parade declaring that you hold this opinion. Have at it, feel free; I would never stop you. In fact, I will applaud you.

But first you have to earn that opinion.

People need to earn their opinions because, first, people hold a lot of really stupid opinions. They think climate change is not real; they think the universe was created in six days about 6,000 years ago; they think that white people are better than all other people. They think that Will Ferrell is funny, they think that Jon Stewart is not, they think that Taylor Swift shouldn’t be forcibly removed from popular culture and never allowed to return. They think that 9/11 was an inside job and that Barack Obama is coming for their guns and that the worst thing the government has done in the last ten years is Benghazi. All of these opinions (Okay, forget about the middle three, there; those are examples of what we really mean when we say “That’s just my opinion,” which is personal preferences. But seriously: removed entirely from popular culture. I don’t mind her existing, but I don’t ever want to hear from her or see her again.) are not only held contrary to fact, but are held contrary to facts or despite facts that are patently obvious and really beyond contestation. And the excuse we allow people is the belief that everyone has the right to their own opinion. This is the justification for absurdities like insisting that schools teach Creationism alongside Darwinian evolution: because, we say, some people believe one thing and some people believe another thing, and both people have the right to their opinions, and we have to respect both opinions.

I can’t believe that people are too dumb to understand the evidence. I can’t believe that the truth is so hard to understand, or so hard to accept, that people are incapable of understanding and accepting it. Because some people do, and there’s nothing that makes those people inherently better than the people who do not. They are capable of accepting the truth: they just don’t. And the reason, I think, is that people don’t think about their opinions. They don’t look for evidence, and they don’t consider all sides of the issue. Why? Because they don’t have to. Because they already have their opinion, and they have the right to their opinion. And that’s why they believe stupid things. I don’t think that people are actually incapable of thought, even though they — oh, who am I kidding? Not “they.” We. — even though we act like it a lot of the time; but we don’t think when we believe we don’t have to, just as we don’t work when we don’t have to, and we don’t wear pants when we don’t have to. The idea that we have the right to our opinion simply because it is our opinion, the belief that everyone has this inherent, unalienable, natural right, and that it is sacrosanct — this is why these opinions still exist and why they are allowed to plague and annoy, and even to harm us.

No more. From now on, everyone, everywhere, has to earn their opinions.

And here’s how you do that: you have to think about your opinions. You have to consider all of the available evidence you have access to (On a sliding scale: the stronger the opinion, and the more important, the more evidence you must consider. We can hold tentative opinions when we don’t have all the facts yet, or when the subject isn’t all that important. Like whether cheesecake is a pie or a cake. Or if Star Trek was socially progressive for having the first interracial kiss on TV, or regressive for — every other kiss involving Captain Kirk. But those opinions must be tentative: held lightly, offered only with reservations.), and you have to listen to the opinions of those who think differently, and you have to think about whether those people might, in fact, be right. And when they are right, you have to adjust your opinion accordingly. You don’t have to change your opinion entirely; it is your opinion — but you have to include an exception, or a caveat, or an alternative. In other words, your opinion must be rational, and it must be open to change. You have to work on your opinions, and make them the very best opinions you could possibly have. Then — and only then –can you take pride in holding those opinions.

The other reason why people should earn their opinions is because the idea that we don’t, the idea that my opinion is as good as your opinion simply because it is my opinion, is used ever and always to end debate and discussion. I believe that discussion is necessary: discussion, communication, is how we gain — everything good, really. Collaboration and cooperation are necessary for society, and society is necessary to maintain both the species and the culture we have created. Communication creates empathy and understanding, which allows for acceptance and peace and harmony. Speaking your mind allows you to shape and solidify what you think; I often start these essays with little more than a single idea, and the rest only appears as I write it (I know: you can tell. Sorry about that.). Communication makes us better people, and happier people, and safer people — and therefore, I would argue, we should have some right to communicate, both the right to speak and the right to hear others speak to us.

Yes, I would argue. I argue a lot; that’s the way that I am annoying, both in the classroom and on the internet. People often don’t want to argue with me, and I can accept that; not everyone likes to struggle and fight. No problem. But even if we aren’t going to argue, we should at least discuss: we should share our ideas, our evidence, our thought process. This is how we learn and grow, this is how we gain respect for each other, and for our opinions: through communication, through conversation. I don’t have to argue, I don’t need to be right, to win or lose — but I do want to understand, and I do want to be understood. I need that. Yet too many of my discussions end the same way: the other person says, “Well, that’s just my opinion, and I’m entitled to that opinion. You’re entitled to yours.”

This sounds like a validation, but it isn’t. It’s the opposite: it’s a put-down. This is telling me that you don’t want to talk to me, you don’t want to share your thought with me: that I’m not worth the effort. This is blocking communication, and therefore also blocking understanding. This is imposing silence on me, not only depriving me of understanding your position, but also stopping me from making my position understood. You don’t have the right to do that, and if the way you do that is the statement, “That’s just my opinion, and I’m entitled to my opinion,” then you don’t have the right to that opinion. In fact, you’re not entitled to any opinion.

You have to earn your opinions.

That’s my opinion. Anyone care to discuss?

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