People today are fond of certain pet phrases and repeat them often. In the context of disagreement and debate about things considered divisive, controversial and/or personal, one of the more popular sayings is that everyone is entitled to have their opinion(s) on the subject, whatever the subject and opinions are. Rarely does anybody challenge the statement, since it seems like an unassailable truth and the person saying it is thought to be speaking form the “high ground” of tolerance or something like it.
But what does the statement really mean and why is it featured with such predictability when there is a disagreement about things like religion, ethics or politics? Some social commentators might suggest that our “entitled” generation is drawn to the statement simply for that reason. There’s nothing a modern American loves to remind other people of more than his or her “rights”, which often extend to things that are in fact nowhere guaranteed legally.
That may be part of the reason this mantra is part of the cultural echo chamber, but I think there’s more to it. To me this statement belongs to a sub-class of what we might call “throw away” lines. These lines sound appealing and meaningful to contemporary ears, but they are mostly empty. People will insert them into a discussion about something controversial in hopes that they might seem profound while bringing the opposing parties together and getting them to “agree to disagree.” But typically the statement adds nothing to the issue and has not been thoughtfully considered. And one other important thing about many throw away lines: they often conceal a sneaky implication of something beyond what the words are really saying. This, I believe, is the case here, as I will elaborate below.
Let’s consider this particular proverb that burns up the airwaves these days. What does it really mean to say that everyone is entitled to their own opinion? Is that true? The answer, as is so often the case, can’t be given reasonably until a few things are clarified. How can I render judgment on something if I don’t know what is really meant by it? The sensible thing to do in such a case is to ask the person who offers this gem what precisely he or she means.
The person could mean, for example, only that in this country, presuming it’s the U.S. we’re talking about, liberty of conscience and freedom of thought/speech are granted legally to the citizens. If that is all that is intended, I concur that this is completely accurate, and I’m glad of it; … but I fail to see what bearing it has on the issues being debated, whatever they may be. In fact if this is what is meant, it borders on that notorious fallacy of relevance known as a “red herring,” and I might simply respond, “Thank you for that reminder and brief civics lesson; now back to the topic we’re discussing …” (or something less sarcastic sounding).
Probably the person means to imply something else, however, and here we have to apply the sniff test, since the thing being implied may not be apparent on the surface. Innocuous sounding statements can serve as the vehicles for smuggling a slanted idea of some kind into a discussion. Don’t be surprised if the person who so casually drops this line about everyone being entitled to their opinion really means to convey the idea that nobody can or should consider another person’s view wrong. Put another way, the statement may intend to convey something more like: “You shouldn’t disagree with my view or suggest that it is weak or false.” In declaring that they’re “entitled” to it, they hope to float under the radar something that ordinarily would demand more work from them, which is that others ought to legitimize or give some kind of consent to the position the person is taking.
To know if this is what is going on, another probing question or three could be employed, such as, “Do you believe that I am wrong? Do you believe that we’re both right? Is it your view that opinion is all that is possible on this question, meaning there is no correct answer?” These questions are designed to sift what was said from what may have been meant by implication. If by chance the familiar refrain is serving as a way to cast the entire subject under a cloud of relativism, this needs to be made plain and confronted.
The point of drawing down on this common saying in this way is not to nail someone to the wall or pester him to the point of irritation. It is an exercise in clarification. Once we can figure out what is truly being said, we can either set it aside as a mostly irrelevant rhetorical appendage to the discussion, or we can challenge it. If the person who lobs this into a disagreement comes to see the foolishness of it, maybe he or she will cease wasting breath on it in the future, and you’ll have spared some poor yet-to-be-determined discussion partner the trouble of hearing it.
And furthermore, just maybe you can help someone see something important. Maybe you can make some actual progress on the question or issue being discussed, instead of a wasting time avoiding the issue by way of tired bromides like this one. As often as it gets repeated, I don’t think I can recall one time when someone arguing against another’s point of view suggested that he or she did not have the right to hold and express that view. Had I grown up in Pakistan, maybe I’d say otherwise, but for everyone born in the Western world, the question of our “right” to our opinion is a non-issue. Nobody’s disputing it, so we need not bring it up, any more than we need to mention in the context of a debate over same-sex marriage that we’re all entitled to whichever cell phone plan we choose to purchase.
Unfortunately the half-haze of relativism still hangs in the air over too many conversations about moral and spiritual concerns. It is like an atmospheric inversion that limits visibility and prevents people from the chance to discern truth from error with a clear line of sight. Sure we’re all free & able to think what we want, and of course our rights as citizens include the holding of whichever opinion we prefer. But let’s not confuse this with the unrelated and indefensible idea that disagreement entails relativism.
If we were classmates and our Algebra teacher gave us a really complex problem to solve, and I decided on a whim to choose 77 as my answer (since it’s a biblical number of completion), the fact that my answer differed from that of others would not force us to determine that everyone is equally correct or that the problem has no objective answer. I would be fully entitled by law to advocate for my answer as the ‘best’ one, regardless of how strange or convoluted the justification. Fortunately for all of us, we are free to be wrong about things. But we are not free to cause wrong things to be right simply by our say-so. As one of C. S. Lewis’ fictional characters put it, “There are a dozen views about everything until you know the answer. Then there’s only one” (That Hideous Strength).
That’s my opinion, anyway, to which, as you know, I am entitled.