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Is everyone really “entitled to their own opinion”?

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.

20 Responses to “Is everyone really “entitled to their own opinion”?”

  1. I just read this to my 16 year old son. He came to me last year asking for a topic for a speech. I suggested he write his speech on the changed definition of tolerance, which he did, and delivered it. This common phrase is an offshoot of the same vein of thinking. I like your suggestion that we ask questions for clarification when confronted with that comment. Good advise!

  2. In my experience, the vast majority of folks advancing this phrase intend to politely signal their desire to end the discussion.

    Of course, some of them also mean to say that the issue is of a kind where no definitive answer can be given, and that even recognizing well-reasoned opinions about it may be difficult.

    We all have our blind spots. I’ve seen talented professionals advance this phrase when they’re busy or impatient/ambivalent about certain topics, religion and politics often being two of them. They have a job to do, and someone has to do it.

    We’ve talked about this before. Conceptual analysis and well thought out, logical beliefs based in analytic philosophy and expressed in clear, precise writing is important, but it’s not the whole picture of what it means to be informed or an intellectual. An understanding of the scientific method, as well as cognizance of the current scientific body of knowledge is just as if not more important than philosophy.

    Either way, ignore one to the exclusion of the other and you’re bound to have a myopic, lopsided worldview that anchors too heavily on the methods and knowledge of either one.

  3. Maybe I am missing something here, but somehow I find some strong irony here. In this post we read that, 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. And this: 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.

    And in the last post much time was spent in the comments section covering the fact that to qualify as being evangelical one cannot be dogmatic on any of the non essential issues. Indeed that everyone (or church) is entitled to their own opinion!

    I reckon I wouldn’t see so much humor in this if these two posts hadn’t appeared back to back!

  4. Clint Roberts April 5, 2013 at 8:38 pm

    Ironies are everywhere, but sometimes they’re only skin deep. While I haven’t perused the entire comments section of the post you are talking about, don’t you think that when people argue that in non-essentials there should be leeway for differences, they are not saying or implying that non-essentials are mere matters of preference?

    I seriously doubt, in other words, that anybody making that case is a closet relativist about doctrine or interpretation. The liberty is given within a range of views that are understood to be reasonable. You can believe that one of the views is the right one (or at least the one most likely to be correct) while ‘entitling’ others to hold one of the other acceptable views. What’s problematic about that?

  5. Clint Roberts,

    I reckon you are right. I was thinking more about it and pretty much realized that what you said would be the response I got from you or someone else.

    It probably isn’t nearly as much of an irony as it seemed to me to be originally.

  6. hmm… entitled.. we were bought with a price, but such freedom in opinion but how sobering the choosing; such a call for submission, faithfulness of His people to perpetually pray for reliance on His understanding and wisdom…

    -the LORD saw that every intent of the thoughts of man’s heart was only evil continually. Gen 6:5
    -the word of God is able to judge the thoughts/intentions of the heart. Heb 4: 12
    -since God’s thoughts are higher as the heavens are than the earth Isa 55:9; we ought not be impulsive in thought Eccl 5:2
    -the Spirit of truth guides into all the truth, not speaking on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He speaks glorifying Jesus by taking of His and disclosing it John 16:113-14
    -if we us lack wisdom, we ask God for it and He gives it to all generously without reproach James 1:5
    that our faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God revealed through the Spirit who searches all things, even the depths of God; so we speak words taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words- the mind of Christ. 1 Cor 2 var.
    -we are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ 2 Cor 10:5
    -each person must be fully convinced in his own mind. Rom 14:5

  7. Sadly, this is often where we hear the Text in 2 Peter 1: 20, and the so-called idea of “private interpretation”. Not really the meaning here, as “the origin” of the prophecies of the OT Scripture themselves, comes about through the Holy Spirit Himself… “For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (Verse 21)

    See btw, the notes here in the ESV Study Bible!

  8. I truly enjoy the analysis of this phrase in your post, Clint. So often such phrases are a code or signal, given with a nod and a wink, so if the other also nods, we know we are both in the “Relativism Club”. On the other hand, it also could be we are tapping out of the mental wrestling match without leaving any blood on the mat! Perhaps humility is the first skill learned in Seminary, or should be.
    Maybe a good response in the midst of it would be: Does this issue really have a right or wrong answer, or are we merely looking at a philosophical canvas, commenting on the brush strokes?
    Many of the important issues in life have a right or wrong answer. And we do not have the “right” to declare that good is bad, or a lie is truth.
    It is better to keep silent and thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.

  9. It seems a line that could be classified the same as : “Why don’t we just agree to disagree?” or ‘Let’s just leave it at that.”

    It’s been my experience anyway that any of the above lines either signal someone’s getting defensive because they don’t feel listened to or satisfied by the answers given in the discussion, and/or either side doesn’t know how to go on with it, or solve the problem, so these kinds of lines give them what they believe is an easier more peaceable route to drop the subject.

  10. Greg,

    You said:

    ‘In my experience this line often (certainly not always) comes from somebody who has a canned view on some topic they themselves have never adequately pursued and when this is becoming apparent they throw this out there as a way of escaping the conversation without admitting their obvious and contented ignorance.”

    Are you saying I am obviously or contented ignorant, although others belieive the same way I do that it is simply a way to bow gracefully out of a conervsation neither can agree to?

  11. Surely we must always beware of going to the subjective place, first! St. Paul always spoke first in his Letters about the doctrinal place of God In Christ, and thus GOD’s revelation and economy in a fallen world! Here too I think of the early work (A.D. 190) of Irenaeus (c.125-200), ‘Adversus Haereses (Against Heresies). Btw, it was Irenaeus who first defended the Four Gospels as Canon!

    *And for those that don’t know, Irenaeus was a Ante-Nicene Christian Chiliast (Historic Pre-Millennialist).

    My point, is that we do have to stay on “doctrinal” course! And certainly this is not popular today. And this is basically where I see our brother Greg seeking to come from and go to most of the time. :)

  12. Truth Unites... and Divides April 7, 2013 at 1:59 pm

    IS EVERYONE REALLY “ENTITLED TO THEIR OWN OPINION”?

    Absolutely!

    ;-)

  13. TUAD,

    I find myself agreeing with you on a personal basis. Free speech is a right, as is religious freedom in America. Thank God we have both of those thing still.

    Just curious as to how you feel reading some of these comments, as they relate to Clint’s post? Are we being more secular than Christian in some of our beliefs about this issue?

    Why or why not?

  14. There’s a difference between informed opinion and uninformed opinion. The latter is the type people should probably keep to themselves, but it doesn’t always work that way.

    I once listened to a talk radio show where they would cut people off if they were reading from some 3rd party source (book, newspaper, report, study, etc.). They didn’t want informed opinion, they wanted the radio drama of average people ranting. Guess that makes for better ratings.

    Really, why confuse opinion with the facts?

  15. But do you really care about this issue? What are you doing to make it better?
    Well?

  16. “Everyone’s entitled to their opinion” goes along with the saying “Opinions are like a**holes; everyone’s got one.” But that doesn’t mean we have to listen to all of them.

  17. Can’t help but recall a professing Christian whose first loyalty is to pragmatism (so she can accuse others of situation ethics).
    She gets her theology from the boob-tube and expects you to be amazed with her “profound insights” of blaming everything on the devil.
    I tried telling her that Satan can’t do anything without God’s permission…..

    So she refuses to admit she is wrong and dismisses you: Let’s agree to disagree!

    More sophistry…..when “non-defensive communication” trumps the truth of God’s Word…..possibility of wolf in sheep’s clothing?

    Thank you Clint Roberts for the excellent article- helped me to put bad experience into proper perspective :-)

  18. Your articule is interesting, but rests on a number of fallacies:

    – Are only some persons allowed opinions and not others? Who determines this? And who holds these rights and on what basis?

    – You bemoan subjectivism/relativism, but it’s a fact of life that everything is subjective. We all think, value and reason differently. Even physiology is subjective (does everybody you know have the same allergies, or the same metabolism?) To deny relativism is thus to deny reality. I’ll offer an example. Is NYC a better city than Los Angeles? How is better defined? People would use different metrics to decide. NYC is perhaps more important financially and internationally, but others may say they prefer sun and not snow or occassional superstorms. Which view is better or more valid?

    – The politics and culture of the US and many other Western countries is based on rights, whether legal, civil or human. What is your exact point in that regard? It’s how our societies are structured, in that our governments afford us given rights that they are upheld to approve.

    – You last paragraph is nonsense, since you are not differentiate between fact and opinion. A fact is objective and beyond doubt or dispute. Saying that water comprises hydrogen and oxygen is a fact. To say water is the best tasting liquid known to man is opinion, since this cannot be proven objective.

  19. Read more closely C A. As to the points you raised.

    – Not everything is a fallacy. I could be wrong about a particular thing without it being a fallacy.

    – Why do you presume I don’t think everyone has a right to an opinion? I made it clear you can think or say whatever you like. What you can’t do is BE RIGHT. There’s no obligation to believe you.

    – You wrote, “You bemoan subjectivism/relativism, but it’s a fact of life that everything is subjective.” In that case this very statement is merely subjective, so I need not believe it.

    – I honestly don’t know what you were getting at with the last two points, so I’ll leave them alone. You’re free to clarify if you want.

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