Cognitive Semantics »« Free Speech means just that

Why “everyone’s entitled to their opinion” is a lie

As children we were inducted into some terrible and damaging lies perpetrated by society (usually at the hands of our parents). Some of these were benign, like Santa and the Easter Bunny; some were intended as comfort but led us astray, I’m thinking here of guardian angels or monsters under the bed being afraid of light; but there was one that was truly abhorrent and is responsible for a whole host of problems in modern life.

That lie, my friends, is the oft-parroted screed: “everyone’s entitled to their opinion.”

Before I get started tearing this idiotic statement down, I would like to formally acknowledge the hypocrisy present in the fact that I am presenting my opinion that not everyone is entitled to an opinion. Hopefully by the end of this post I will successfully demonstrate that there are some people who are entitled; not by virtue of their specialness but by the way in which they arrive at their opinions. There, it has been disclaimed.

A great anecdote pops into my head, which hearkens me back to Grade 13 (OAC) English class with Ms. Mooney. A classmate of mine presented some half-thought-through metaphorical interpretation of something in Robertson Davie’s Fifth Business. Ms. Mooney pointed out that such an interpretation did not seem to fit the overall theme of the book, and in fact ran completely contrary to other sections in the work. Haughtily, the classmate shot back “well, everyone’s entitled to their opinion,” to which Ms. Mooney replied “yes, but yours is wrong.”

Colloquially used, “everyone is entitled to their opinion” means that anyone can think whatever they want, and they have the right to express that opinion, have it listened to, and be considered alongside other opinions. In a legal sense, I suppose it is true that it is against the principles of free speech to restrict someone from expressing an opinion – in that specific context I suppose everyone does have the right to say whatever they want. However, this is taken much too far. There are any number of people out there who should not be expressing an opinion on anything. I’m not suggesting they aren’t allowed to, I’m saying that their opinions are so damaging and retarding of actual thought and progress that it erodes the opinions of people who actually do know what they’re talking about.

I’m talking in circles a bit here, so I am going to back up a bit to first principles. I want to first start by providing my definition of opinion. The Free Dictionary provides the following definition:

A belief or conclusion held with confidence but not substantiated by positive knowledge or proof.

Which, I suppose, is close to the colloquial meaning. Obviously if there is positive knowledge or proof of an idea it becomes a fact, not merely an opinion. The problem with this definition is that the standard of “proof” is an illusory one. People today have finally caught up to the methodological skeptic philosophers of the 17th century and have happily begun telling everyone (with faux smugness) that “it’s impossible to prove anything.” In a certain metaphysical sense that is an accurate statement – outside of mathematics it is impossible to have 100% proof that anything is true. The definition of proof then comes under fire, because nothing is completely unassailable. For example, I can doubt the existence of the sun, preferring instead to believe that there is a giant light bulb floating in the air that is controlled by guy wires. “Evidence, reason and logic be damned,” I might say “I know a floating light bulb when I see one and you can’t prove otherwise.”

So we need to establish a standard for “proof” first. I would offer the following:

Sufficient evidence and/or logic to establish beyond reasonable doubt that an explanation for an event or phenomenon is an accurate description of reality.

Sure, there are huge problems with it: what is “reasonable” doubt? What is “reality”? I am happy to dispense with these as questions suitable for contemplation by metaphysicists, who in fact have a great deal to say on the matter. For the purposes of this discussion we can define reasonable as “in accordance with fair-minded logic” and reality as “the state of affairs from an independent observer” and end the ontological portion of this exercise.

Having established this standard for proof -  which does not, by the way, preclude the idea that new evidence could disprove something – we can begin to have a meaningful discussion about what an opinion is. In this case, an opinion is a world-view (I like Piaget’s term schema for a world view, and will use it hereafter unitalicized) for which there is insufficient evidence one way or another to demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that an event is, in fact, reality.

There are any number of forms such an opinion can take. For example, there is no “right answer” when it comes to economic theory. There are examples of times when allowing privatization of a field produces better outcomes than government control would – a great example of this is the Human Genome Project, in which Celera developed a private venture that was much faster and cheaper than the international body in sequencing the genome. However, there are similarly examples of circumstances where public administration is far superior to private competition – the 407 Highway in Southern Ontario is such an example, in which a toll highway was constructed with public funds, was subsequently privatized, then had to be bailed out by the government. In addressing any given problem (for example, ‘should the government privatize pharmaceutical insurance?’) there are opinions to be had on either side. Neither approach can prove its superiority in the hypothetical, and so legitimate debate can take place.

What is common to the opinions in the private/public debate is that there is (in addition to presumably some evidence) a logical and reasoned progression from agreed-upon first principles that diverges at some point to form two partially contradictory views on the same issue. For example, advocates of both public and private can agree on the meaning of terms like “money” and “savings” and “benefit.” While they may forecast the outcomes of those terms differently, they can at least agree to be using the same dictionary.

In this context, I would like to offer a clearer and more precise definition of opinion:

A belief or conclusion held with confidence, borne by logic and common first principles, that has not been or cannot be definitively proven.

All I’ve done is shoehorn in the thesis of my argument, which is that an opinion ought to be based on a combination of fact and, failing that, evidence-supported lines of reasoning. If it’s not possible to prove something (to reference my earlier example of the classmate in English), your opinion should be consistent with reality and you should be able to “show your work” – your audience should be able to see your thought process. I also put in the “first principles” thing simply because there are people who love to shift goalposts mid-argument and say “well that’s not what _____ means to me.” If you can’t agree a priori what you’re talking about then the argument is a waste of time and precious consonants (vowels are abundant and freeeeeeeeeee).

Why is this a better definition, or at least a more useful one? Consider the alternative case, in which opinion means merely whatever idea crosses your mind at a given moment. It must be given the same consideration as a hypothesis that has been scrupulously and carefully worked out. My brainwave that the sun is a giant floating light bulb is therefore equally valid (in an “all opinions are valid” sense) as your conjecture that it is in fact a ball of gas burning millions of miles away. The problem with tolerating my hare-brained pseudo-opinion in a fit of political magnanimity is that my interpretation has wildly different consequences than yours (yours allows space travel; mine necessitates the construction of a factory to build a replacement “sun” in anticipation of when this one burns out, and the giant A-frame ladder needed to install it). If my opinion is granted credence and equal time to yours (since everyone is entitled), I might be able to persuade some gullible fools into going along with it. Given a charismatic enough spokesperson and enough political pressure, we will be forced to “teach the controversy” of sun vs. bulb in schools.

I am clearly drawing a parallel here, which should illustrate to you that this kind of thing can and does happen, with disastrous results.

Furthermore, I think it’s useful to recognize that some opinions trump others in our own lives. One of the most over-used and perhaps most moronic statements of our common parlance is “agree to disagree” when it comes to matters of clear right and wrong. A friend of mine delights in tormenting another friend (the two are roomies) by saying something completely outlandish and then, when challenged, smirking and saying “whatever, I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree.” There is only one circumstance in which “agree to disagree” is a valid statement, and that’s in a deontological argument (ethics, discussions of “the good”). People have conflicting values, and it’s impossible to establish which values are “right” and “wrong”. Further explaining the difference would require another explanation nearly as long as this post, so I’ll save it for another time and get back to my original point.

In order to progress as a society, to develop new ideas and solve new problems, we must do away with this pernicious lie that everyone deserves to have their opinion heard. I have attempted to show the logic and reasoning from first principles behind why I feel this way. I once had a roommate say to me “the only reason you’re right more than I am is that you never say anything that people can really object to!” as though it were some sort of vice to have thought things through. However, I want to make it clear that I am not advocating the censorship of dissenting opinions or even crackpot lunatics. What I am advocating is that we stop lying to our children when we tell them that everyone opinion is equally valid. What if we told them instead “provided there’s something reasonable behind it, every opinion has at least some validity”? Definitely not as catchy, but not as destructive either.

At least, that’s my opinion.

Comments

  1. Lisa Frey says

    I love this post.

    Nothing drives me crazier than people who have given something ten seconds of consideration and yet feel their analysis is just as valid as the analysis of someone who has studied the problem his whole life. (Not to say that sometimes this isn’t the case, but the presumption is incredibly irritating).

    Bravo.

  2. says

    Thanks, Lisa. Imagine if before administering “opinion polls”, people were given factual information about the issue rather than just taking the temperature of people’s knee-jerk reactions to things. At the very least we’d get a lot more in the “I don’t know” column

  3. Mary says

    Thank you for sharing your well thought out and oh so reasonable and logical post.

  4. Pelikan says

    I couldn’t agree more on your main statement. Not all opinions are equally valid.

    However, I must object when you say that values are exempt. Values are not equally valid (can it ever be good to kill a woman who is not virgin on her wedding night?!) I must refer to Sam Harris and his “The moral landscape”, for he says it better than I.

    The only area where opinions are equal, is when it comes to taste, and even there it is possible to argue that a professional critique with more experience might have a better opinion.

    That’s my opinion. And it’s the right one! ;-)

  5. says

    Thanks for your comment, Pelikan.

    I don’t know that killing a woman on her wedding night is a ‘value’. It undoubtedly comes from a value system (the desirability of purity, perhaps), but it is not in an of itself a value.

    When I say values, I refer to people’s different interpretations of ‘the good’. If I think that freedom is good, and someone else thinks safety is good, we’re not going to be able to debate the abrogation of civil rights – it will simply end in a stalemate. We can look to the consequences of following our respective value systems, but when those are unknown it simply becomes a philosophical debate.

    I have baldly stated that values cannot be seen as one better than the other, and that may not in fact be the case. I haven’t yet heard an argument that has swayed me, but maybe Sam Harris will show me something new.

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