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.