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.

Free Speech means just that

One of my favourite quotes (which is actually a paraphrase, not a quote) is so commonly referenced that it has become almost cliché:

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”

This is, of course, famously attributed to Marie François Arouet, better known as the French philosopher Voltaire. It is probably the single greatest encapsulation of one of the most liberal of enlightened philosophies, that of Free Speech. Free speech is the hallmark of liberal, enlightened and modern societies; so much so that we often take it for granted. Of course, if you live in China, that’s quite another story.

Google China has had issues with the oppressive (use of this word is entirely opinion, since it’s an extremely relative term) censorship laws the government has forced on all internet use in the country. As a result, they recently moved out of China and is redirecting their google.cn traffic to google.hk, which for reasons I don’t quite understand is not subject to the same censorship. The Chinese government has reacted by accusing Google of pushing an ideological stance rather than respecting China’s repressive, backward and wholly counter-productive “Great Firewall” mentality. Understandably, the rest of the world has reacted by saying “Good on ya, Google.”

Free speech isn’t just a nice idea. Free speech allows the flow of information and the creation of new ideas. It accelerates discovery and ensures that tyranny cannot survive. This is the reason why the first thing a totalitarian regime does is crack down on critical press, and the reason why the writers of the US Constitution (a fantastic document despite one’s feelings about the USA) and the Canadian Charter made sure to enshrine free speech and free press as paramount. Free speech is more than simply a boon to the average citizen – it ensures the progression and long-term health of a society.

So here’s my issue: Ann Coulter. The absurd blonde dancing monkey (the media is calling her a ‘pundit’ – I will feign no such respect) was scheduled to appear at a conservative student’s association event at the University of Ottawa this past week. To digress for a moment – conservatives, why on EARTH would you associate yourself with Ann Coulter? That would be like liberals taking their cues from L. Ron Hubbard! Find someone less insane and eye-rollingly clueless to represent your cause. Anyway, back to the matter at hand. Ann was supposed to speak to the UofO, and the president of the university sent her a letter reminding her that free speech laws in Canada specifically make exception for hate speech, and she should be careful in light of her previous statements that she can be prosecuted if she says something that advocates hate against a specific group.

Being the logical, moderate and insightful person that she is, Ann of course had a reasonable response: she said that she was the victim of a hate crime. I am almost tempted to say I wish a hate crime one day actually PERFORMED on everyone who cries “hate crime” inappropriately. Scratch that, I’m taking out the equivocation. You can quote me on this. I fervently hope that anyone who calls a mild rebuke, a conscientious disagreement, or a helpful letter of warning a “hate crime” is beaten senseless by a mob of skinheads or religious extremists. There, that takes care of any political ambitions I might have. A hate crime is a real thing, and misusing the word ‘hate’ makes a mockery of anyone who has legitimately suffered for a cause or as an accident of birth.

Some protesters showed up to Ann’s speech, she panicked, and chickened out, canceling the event. In true Chicken Little fashion, she cites the violence by the 2000 protesters who were there. Police estimates put it around 1000, most of whom were people trying to attend the event. She called UofO a “bush league” school (which may be warranted, but still… ouch!), completely unaware of the triple entendre (since she was very much part of Bush’s league, and due to the high quality/relative proportion of the female student body). She then ran lovingly into the arms of Calgary, bastion of ignorance and bigotry for Canada.

This story is not really a propos of anything, except that it highlights a glaring hypocrisy in Canada’s free speech laws. What it boils down to for me is that speech is either free or it isn’t. In my mind, there is no special status for hate speech – it deserves no special attention or regulation. Well-intentioned but philosophically bankrupt lefties are betraying the very idea of Free Speech by saying “your speech is as free as we decide it is.” I say this will full awareness of the fact that there are people out there who speak free hate against me and my parents’ marriage (for those who don’t know, my father is black and my mother is white). I have read their hate speech, I have read speech against LGBT people, Natives, immigrants (of which my father is one), Jews, Roma, any group under the sun. Not once have I ever said “they shouldn’t be allowed to say that.” There is a very good reason for this.

Speech is the way we express ideas. Ideas, once spoken, are subject to debate. Good ideas (women’s suffrage, civil rights, gay rights) prosper, while bad ideas (slavery, bigotry, anti-Semitism) fall by the wayside. It’s no accident that societies with free speech have better human rights and overall healthier societies – it’s directly causally linked. The bad ideas I listed before were all legally enshrined in the same countries that have free speech; however, over time the free flow of new ideas pushed the bad ones to the fringes. This is only possible when people are allowed to say what they think and be taken to task for their ideas. Prohibiting certain types of speech is not the answer to a progressive society; it actively retards progression. This is not to say that someone inciting violence shouldn’t be prosecuted for it, but prosecution should come on the grounds that it is violent, not because it’s “hateful”.

The side benefit to allowing bigots to speak their mind (aside from the fact that their writing is usually of such a poor quality that it is easy to identify and dismiss them readily) is that the bigots often represent a real dilemma bubbling below the surface. We’ve seen recently what happens when such resentment is allowed to go unchecked.

There are a few moments in history where conservatives are right and liberals are wrong. This, sadly, is one of them.

The Forces of Stupid

Battle lines have been drawn in the intellectual plains. The respective armies have gathered and are unleashing holy hell on each other. This is not the oft-referenced battle between the Forces of Good and the Forces of Evil. No this battle is much more insidious. This is a battle between the Forces of Good and the Forces of Stupid.

Who are represented on these two sides? Warriors for the Forces of Good (FoG) include scientists, secular humanists, and those in all fields who make a genuine effort to be conscientious and thoughtful in all issues before picking a side.

Representing the Forces of Stupid are:

  • Creationists
  • Anti-vaccinationists
  • Tea-Partiers
  • Conservatives (surely not all of them, but definitely the ones who are doing all of the talking)
  • 9/11 Truthers, Holocaust Deniers, Illuminati conspiracy theorists, etc.

These are fights where there is a clear right and a clear wrong. Legitimate disagreement is possible when two sides have a philosophical difference when interpreting the same set of facts (most ethical dichotomies, the actual nature of subatomic physics, whether to get pizza or Chinese for dinner). In some fights, the controversy is resolved when new facts come to light that clearly define what is real, and what isn’t. Not so, in the minds of the Forces of Stupid. What is common to those on the FoS side is that they believe they know the “real truth” without taking any time to examine any evidence whatsoever.

By way of weaponry, these two opposing forces seem almost completely mismatched. The FoG use fact and reasoning as their chief weapons. They are able to craft logical, precise and nuanced arguments that cut as close to the heart of truth as is humanly possible. The FoS, on the other hand are armed simply with wild, unsupported assertions and every logical fallacy under the sun including personal attacks, erecting false equivalence, and their favourite tactic: straw men.

The difference, however, comes in to play when one examines the defensive armaments available to each side. The FoG, believing that their weaponry is so far superior to that of their opponents, use it also as their chief defense. They counter the flimsy and weak attacks of the armies of Stupid by cutting their attacks to pieces, parrying each volley of half-baked accusation and allegation with razor-sharp deductive precision, rendering their foes’ attacks harmless. The FoS, on the other hand, are shielded in an impregnable fortress of denial and lethe, first refusing to believe that their attacks have been utterly defeated and then turning around, forgetting that it happened at all, and re-launching their original, refuted, attack.

Why is this battle happening? Aside from the obvious fact that people disagree about things, and some of those things are highly important, who are these two opposing forces fighting for? In any war, those doing the actual fighting make up only a small percentage of the general population, being strongly outnumbered by civilians. This struggle is no different. There are a large number of people who are undecided on these issues, whether through benign ignorance or cautious equivocation. The more of these people either side can win over to their way of thinking, the stronger the force becomes and the more that side can sway decisions.

So why do these two forces appear to be on equal footing? Why don’t the FoS just rout their opponent, having completely dismantled their attack apparatus? The sad truth is, because people are stupid. Now, I don’t mean stupid as in unintelligent or as a necessarily pejorative term, I simply mean that the average person does not latch on to reasoned thought as being the only way to make decisions. This happens for a number of reasons – thinking is hard work, reality is more nuanced than a soundbyte can encapsulate, they are not educated enough to use logical tools (this is the biggie, in my opinion) – but at least part of it has to do with the fact that religion has elevated “faith” to be equivalent to logic. The argument is that evidence and reason are good for some things, but it’s equally valid to simply believe in something.

I posit that the FoS are able to appeal to that type of thinking. It gives people all the satisfaction of “knowing” that something is “true” without having to do any of the hard work required to establish verifiable truth. The FoS believe in their heart of hearts that what they believe is 100% un-nuanced reality and that anyone who believes differently is insane. This explains why when an argument is soundly defeated, the FoS simply shift the goalposts and say that the “real truth” is still there, it’s just a little different than they were saying before (or worse, that they’d been saying that all along, completely ignoring/forgetting their previous statements). This is absolutely because of faith-based “reasoning” – just look up Thomas Aquinas’ “proofs” of the existence of God, or any theological argument for that matter. This also explains the phenomenon of what has been called Crank Magnetism, where people who believe in one crackpot theory often believe in, and/or come to the aid of those who believe in, many other types of unsupported/unsupportable assertions and belief systems.

I’m not saying that belief is wrong. FoS foot soldiers often point out that people believe in science and then try their damnedest to forge a false equivalence between religious belief and belief in the evidence. However, these two types of belief are not the same. Scientific beliefs and tenets come from observing phenomena in the world, noting how they behave, discerning a pattern, and then drawing a conclusion (yes, I am aware that scientists often go in with a model in their minds already which can bias the conclusion, but that is the flaw of the scientist, not the science). Contrast this to religious belief, wherein the conclusions are drawn first, and evidence is tortured, teased, stretched and cajoled to fit the prescribed pattern. In scientific belief, evidence that does not fit the model is evidence that the model doesn’t explain reality well or is wrong and the model is abandoned; whereas in religious belief, evidence must be changed to fit the model, which can never be abandoned.

In order for the Forces of Good to triumph, it is necessary to take a number of steps. I will detail these in another post (as this one is already getting a bit lengthy) but they are, in brief:

  • Understand your own position
  • Be consistent
  • Counter value arguments with value arguments
  • Speak to the audience (those undecideds)
  • Refuse to compromise truth
  • Be respectful of the opposing side’s humanity, if not (and definitely not) their beliefs

The true path to winning this war is to educate the populace, since educated people are more likely and more able to use logic as a decision-making tool. Ever notice how conservatives want to gut education spending, or leave higher education only within the reach of the rich? Ever wonder why? It’s because uneducated people are where their votes come from.

This battle is far from over, but the smarter we get, the less likely we are to end up fighting for the Stupid.