“We’re all entitled to our opinion!”

There is a sort of liberal handwaving that happens when someone wants to dismiss your position but doesn’t have the ammunition to argue against it. It is expressed as: “we all have the right to our own opinions” or “we’re all entitled to think what we want” or “you have the freedom to say that” or something of the sort. The funny part is when they get all astonished that you dare to disagree with such a “reasonable” principle.

I say it’s liberal handwaving, but conservatives occasionally use it too, mostly when Christians are pressed against the wall and have run out of arguments. Then they’ll pop up with some kind of “well, we all have faith in something,” as if arguing against faith was a waste of time because we’re all entitled to have faith in something, anything, as long as it sounds religious enough.

My first problem with this tactic is that it’s often nothing more than a passive-aggressive way of expressing disagreement without actually addressing anything substantial. Like I said, they use it when they have nothing left to say but don’t want to acknowledge being wrong. Basically, they’re really saying “you’ve made some great points but I can’t acknowledge that fact because doing so would threaten my worldview, so I’ll just say a platitude in the hopes that you’ll just forget about it.” It’s a complete negation of reason.

Telling someone that they have the right to say what they’re saying is just a trivial response. If it’s true, then it necessarily applies to anything anyone might say, so why mention it in this particular situation and not others? We observe that people mostly invoke their right to speak when they are doing something particularly objectionable, such as pornography or corporate meddling in elections. They use the free speech argument because they have no other arguments left.

My second problem with this tactic, and perhaps the most important, is that it’s just plain false: you most certainly are not entitled, or have a right, to any opinion you want. Entitlement and right imply a need so great that going against it is a form of aggression (e.g. food, shelter, health, justice, equality, freedom, and so on). An opinion is not one of those things. No one has ever died for the inability to formulate a certain opinion. No one has failed to flourish because they were not entitled to an opinion.

Let’s be more specific here, because it’s not all opinions that are at issue. You can have opinions or beliefs all you want about things that are not statements of fact, and I will not begrudge you if you claim having a right to those opinions or beliefs. The problems begin when you make statements of fact. and these problems amplify quite a bit if those statements are purported to be about other people.

So for example a man may feel fulfilled by his masculine gender role. He would be entitled to feel that way and to believe that this is his way to flourish. But if that same man stated as a fact that masculinity was the ideal that all men should achieve, then I would certainly object to such an inanity whether he liked it or not. And if he judged me, or some other men, on the basis of that standard, then I would not recognize that he is entitled or has the right to believe this. I would correctly judge that he is hurting other people and should keep his beliefs to himself. No one is entitled to hold opinions that entail injury to others.

Nothing stops anyone from believing that opinions are just a harmless sort of thing that come and go without any impact on other people, just floating around in our brain disconnected from the outside world. The problem is that our beliefs are very much connected to our actions.

There can be a lot of misunderstanding about this. So for example someone may point out that the Bible says to love one another and to follow the Golden Rule, and that organized Christianity has never acted as if this mattered. But it would be an error to use this as an argument to prove that beliefs do not inform actions. For the most part, the beliefs that inform our actions are incentives innate to the structures we live within.

Keep in mind the difference between theoretical purposes and actual purposes, because I think that’s usually what trips people up. The theoretical purpose of Christianity does include charitable works and providing moral standards for a community. Its actual purpose is to keep people in line and promote its own idea of ultimate truths, and charitable works are just a means that religious organizations (and corporations, and cults, amongst others) use to polish their public image. It’s got nothing to do with “loving one another.”

Beliefs guide actions. What we believe about other people informs how we see them, and how we see people influences how we act towards them. This is simple logic. Beliefs have consequences; unethical beliefs usually have unethical consequences. They can entail real harm to real people.

My third, and final, problem with this tactic is that it’s an attempt at having one’s cake and eating it too: the person is making claims about reality while taking refuge behind the subjective.

So coming back to my first example, a Christian may argue that “well, we all have faith in something,” which is an attempt to reduce factual issues to the personal realm. But if the issue under discussion was, say, Creationism, then a lot of factual issues were probably involved (such as the fossil record, carbon dating, DNA, and so on) as well as beliefs about other people (such as the motivation of scientists or of people who believe in evolution). These beliefs are not a priori equal to any other belief, and they are not purely personal constructs.

7 thoughts on ““We’re all entitled to our opinion!”

  1. Zosha B August 29, 2015 at 22:08 Reply

    A wise woman I respect once said “opinions are for those who do not have the back up to form ideas” I think that is very applicable.

  2. suelyle August 29, 2015 at 23:32 Reply

    Great blog Francois. We all hold beliefs or what I prefer to call assumptions about the world that have implications for how we live our lives and treat other people. Questioning our assumptions and considering their implications using reason to challenge their efficacy is easential. That’s why I like the way you have structured this blog.

    • Francois Tremblay August 30, 2015 at 00:33 Reply

      Thank you! I absolutely agree with what you said. This blog used to be called “Check Your Premises.” I changed the name due to the association of that term with a certain philosophical ideology that I’m no longer proud of, but the basic principle is still the same. I’ve always liked to look at how systems and ideologies work, and get to the root principles.

  3. Independent Radical August 30, 2015 at 04:05 Reply

    Another liberal phrase I can’t stand is “everyone’s opinions are valid”. In philosophy, a valid argument is one has premises that lead innevitably to the conclusions. In Liberal Land “valid” is a wishy washy word that makes people feel good while avoiding the question of whether their viewpoint is accurate or not. The statement is thus completely meaningless and is just a way to shut down debate.

    • Francois Tremblay August 30, 2015 at 04:49 Reply

      Valid = should not be invalidated, perhaps? As if an opinion was just like a personal experience?

      But when an opinion clashes with my own experience or that of others, then it can, by definition, be invalidated… Otherwise we plunge into contradiction!

      In practice, it ends up being “my personal experience is better than yours”!

  4. jigenryu778 September 1, 2015 at 11:49 Reply

    I hate that phrase so passionately.

    A few months ago had got into an argument that lasted the whole day against someone. This argument happened immediately after the announcement that the United Sates finally legalized marriage equality. It started off with him or her quoting random bible verses saying that being LBGT is a sin and yada yada. I told him or her that he or she did not have the right to project his or her sense of morality onto other people, but he or she said he or she could because free speech. He or she also told me to know my place as if to subordinate me.

    I told him or her that he or she needed to back off and get his or her own life and that it is unspeakably arrogant that he or she needed to have his or her say in the lives of two privately consenting individuals with the ability to think and act for themselves. He or she once again said that he or she could enforce her “values” on others and that he or she only hated homosexuality and not homosexuals. It was the same old “hate the sin, not the sinner” horsecrap and I was quick to tell him or her that LGBT’s cannot change who they are. He or she invoked the Christian persecution complex by calling me a bully and hypocrite for criticizing him or her even though he or she stepped into the ring first. I told him or her that his or her values were his or hers and his or hers alone to follow and that he or she did not know anything about me and didn’t have any say in my personal affairs.

    He or she was laughing all the way as if this was some sick game. He or she told me I was funny and hoped God would guide me in the right way. I was completely dumfounded by his or her behavior and said that I thought he or she was one of the most disgusting people I ever met in my life. This affected me greatly because I both question my sexuality and am formerly Catholic turned agnostic.

  5. John Doe February 15, 2016 at 10:34 Reply

    I am a proud anti-opinionist. If it were true that everyone was entitled to an opinion, then there would be no debating or arguing or trying to reason with people to see a more open point of view. If somebody says something that I feel promotes a more restrictive agenda, I will knock those people down.

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