Are you really entitled to your opinion?

This column was published in The Mayo News on Tuesday 3rd February 2014.

“It’s my opinion and I’m entitled to it.”

How often have you heard that conversation-killer trotted out during an argument? If you’re like me, hearing it will have the same effect as nails on a blackboard. It makes me wince, but then, I do love a good argument.

However, I have some news for you, opinionators. You’re more than entitled to your opinion – if you can defend it.

No longer confined to boring long-suffering friends or family in the pub or at the dinner table, modern communication channels ensure that the argumentative among us have soapboxes from which to orate all we like. (Whether anyone’s listening is another matter.) We’re accustomed to a variety of rants, whether about the government, sport, or the horror that is inadvertently biting into one of the coffee-flavoured Roses. No matter what our expertise, everyone has an opinion, and sure, we’re all entitled to them. But having them one thing. Considering the effects that stating them might have is another. That’s where we also have a responsibility.

Words are powerful. We should never underestimate them. We should also be aware of our audiences when using them. Sounding off about a local politician, for example on Facebook, sounds innocuous. After all, it’s your page, right? You’re entitled to your opinion, yes? But consider the effect your words might have on that politician’s family.

You don’t believe gay couples should be allowed to get married? That’s your opinion, of course. But can you explain why not? Because you think it will harm society? Have you evidence to support that? No? Well, my friend, perhaps you should examine your opinion in more detail. You might learn something about yourself.

An openness to having our opinions challenged is one of the cornerstones of a healthy democratic society. Unless you can provide an argument, saying “I’m entitled to my opinion” really implies “There’s no depth to my argument, and I can’t be bothered justifying it.” It’s self-entitlement to assume we can just say whatever we want, consequences be damned, regardless of whether or not we know what we’re talking about. It also suggests that we’re either too lazy or too closed-minded to contemplate the possibility that we might actually be wrong.

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“I’m entitled to my opinion” is frequently used to justify attitudes that should have been abandoned long ago like racism, sexism and homophobia. Without censoring – which may just drive these dangerous beliefs underground – we should instead calmly challenge them with facts and evidence.

In the context of public debate, scrutiny of ‘opinion’ helps to prevent the blurring of the line between it and ‘evidence’. For example, if someone argues for banning fluoridation in our water, despite a lack of scientific evidence that it’s harmful, it is in the public interest to challenge this opinion and debunk myths. The same applies to social and health issues. The media has responsibilities in this regard to ensure that evidence presented in debates is robustly interrogated, and in turn to ensure that when opinion is challenged, when necessary, it’s challenged by people qualified to do so. And we need to be sure that equivalence is not being granted as a rule between experts and non-experts in public policy debates.

Having our opinions challenged can be uncomfortable. Often, our views are so tied up with our self-identify that having them challenged can feel like personal criticism. But wouldn’t the world be a very dull and indeed dangerous place if we agreed on everything? And surely our opinions should evolve as we grow as human beings in age and maturity? If flaws in our thinking are pointed out, in an ideal world we really should try not to get immediately offended or angry (or in my case, sulk), and instead embrace the opportunity to learn. To that end, including subjects like philosophy on the curriculum is worthwhile, in order to foster thoughtfulness and an eagerness to construct, interrogate and defend arguments from a young age. And of course, to help us be comfortable with being wrong once in a while.

Changing your mind is not weakness. Refusing to open it is.

But there’s one thing on which I’ll never entertain a challenge. Those blasted coffee-flavoured Roses have got to go.

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