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Repeal the Opinion Entitlement: How the 'right to an opinion' cripples debate

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Somewhere lurking amongst middle-American fears of local Al-Qaeda operative cells, satanic cults, and White House-hatched Socialist coups is the specter of the anti-American “entitlement”. Entitlements -- or “hand-outs” -- coddle the weak, foster a culture of dependency, and discourage healthy self-reliance. They mock the American ideals of hard work, independence, and self-determined grit.

...Or so we’re told by those who believe that they are entitled to their opinion on the matter. I believe, however, that this entitlement, too -- the Opinion Entitlement -- should also be questioned for the deleterious effects it has had upon those whom it is meant to protect. In fact, before the matter of social entitlements -- or any other issue -- can reasonably be debated, we must first outright repeal this intellectual entitlement of the opinion. The Opinion Entitlement has, for too long, coddled the uninformed and willfully ignorant, cultivating an environment of lazy thinkers and armchair pundits dependent on a social norm which acts to shield their most senseless and irrational notions from critical assault. I would like to see a nation that instead cultivates a sense of responsibility toward opinions, opinions that have been earned through a critical scrutiny of facts, an earnest weighing of evidence, and with deference to Logic and Scientific Method.

The Opinion Entitlement is often presented in the guise of moderate diplomacy: “Hey, you’re entitled to your opinion”, your debate opponent says, thus withdrawing from the match. No need to argue, let’s just be civilized and agree to disagree.

What could be more reasonable?

Of course, there is a deeper subtext, one which asks you to assume that your opponent could, in fact, argue against your point endlessly, but the exchange could only end in a bitter stalemate, unresolved and unproductive on both sides.

The assumption that one could argue their point often benefits the withdrawing party, who in all probability invoked the Opinion Entitlement for lack of an ability to argue their opinion any further. One cannot simply walk into a boxing ring and take it upon himself to declare the fight a draw after the first punch has landed him dazed and bleeding upon the floor, or before the match has even begun... yet the equivalent is often done in a debate when the Opinion Entitlement is invoked.

The Opinion Entitlement asks us to regard all opinions as equally valid and worthy of respect, regardless of our differences with them. But, obviously, not all opinions are equally valid. Some are disproportionately weighted with supporting evidence, while others are entirely invalid or untenably weak, supported by poor evidence, false evidence, or no evidence at all. To invoke The Opinion Entitlement is to effectually state that nothing being said, no amount of reasoned perspective, logic, or fact, could possibly change the entitled person’s mind. Being equally valid, opinions, from this perspective, are mere accessories to one’s personal identity -- items of fashion chosen at will, perhaps, because they simply looked good at the time -- suited one’s demeanor and self-image -- rather than for any rational purpose. Thus, to challenge one’s opinion is to challenge one’s very sense of self. An affront to the opinion is an affront to the person.

This is an unscientific mode of mind at a very fundamental level, and it’s a mindset that all individuals should rid themselves of by adulthood. In science, all theories and hypotheses, properly tested, actively seek disconfirming evidence. Experiments are designed in such a manner that their results might disprove the idea being tested. Reasonable people should welcome correction and new information. A responsibility to our opinions would demand that we properly manage them through reasoned consideration of all available evidence. Sadly, the current culture of The Opinion Entitlement finds quite the opposite: the most vociferous opinion-holders are often the most willfully removed from outside evidence, self-sequestered into comfortable echo chambers that provide nothing but validation in a dysfunctional feedback loop.

To be fair, there is a type of opinion for which any attempt at disagreement and active opposition may indeed be considered in poor taste, or even irrational. For instance, when a man claims that his wife is the most beautiful woman in the world, the subjective nature of his assessment -- as well as the benign nature of his judgment -- should be enough to prevent anybody from trying to correct him by pointing out that by any third-party independent qualitative standards, his wife appears hideous.

As Patrick Stokes, lecturer in philosophy at Deakin University, Australia, writes:

“Plato distinguished between opinion or common belief (doxa) and certain knowledge, and that's still a workable distinction today: unlike ‘1+1=2’ or ‘there are no square circles,’ an opinion has a degree of subjectivity and uncertainty to it. But ‘opinion’ ranges from tastes or preferences, through views about questions that concern most people such as prudence or politics, to views grounded in technical expertise, such as legal or scientific opinions."

"You can't really argue about the first kind of opinion. I'd be silly to insist that you're wrong to think strawberry ice cream is better than chocolate. The problem is that sometimes we implicitly seem to take opinions of the second and even the third sort to be unarguable in the way questions of taste are. Perhaps that's one reason (no doubt there are others) why enthusiastic amateurs think they're entitled to disagree with climate scientists and immunologists and have their views ‘respected’.”

“You are not entitled to your opinion”, Stokes asserts, “You are only entitled to what you can argue for."

Another champion for the movement to repeal The Opinion Entitlement, Jamie Whyte, author of Crimes Against Logic: Exposing the Bogus Arguments of Politicians, Priests, Journalists, and Other Serial Offenders, explains the irrelevance of The Opinion Entitlement as an answer to any dispute:

“Let us suppose that Jill disputes Jack’s opinion that free trade causes poverty in the Third World. Jack may defend his opinion by producing evidence connecting trade and poverty but he cannot help his case by insisting that he is entitled to his opinion. How could that show that free trade causes poverty in the Third World?”

“The entitlement would be relevant only if it guaranteed the truth of your opinions. But it can’t do that, because it is an entitlement supposedly enjoyed by everybody. And people disagree. Jack and Jill are both entitled to their contradictory opinions about trade and poverty, but they can’t both be right. So insisting that you are entitled to your opinion cannot possibly give you any proper advantage in a debate.”

One cannot assert a “right” to an opinion, Whyte explains, because such a right would demand an impossible responsibility of those upholding it: “Does your right to your opinion oblige me to agree with you? No, that would make the duty impossible to perform. For I too have a right to my opinion, which you must respect. If we disagree, I must change my opinion to yours, and you must change yours to mine. But then we disagree again, and must change our opinions again. And so on forever, never managing to do our impossible duty.”

With the repeal of The Opinion Entitlement I feel that we’ll have taken a bold stride in the proper direction, toward a respect for fact-checked data over platitudes and “zingers”; a step away from sacrosanct personal realities, toward a real-world understanding of what we know to be true... and how we know what we know to be true. Indeed, we will have taken an important step toward a greater respect for Truth in general when we end The Opinion Entitlement’s requirement that all supernatural assumptions, fantasies, delusions, irresponsible speculations, and otherwise unsound opinions be equally respected.

So when next somebody asserts The Opinion Entitlement in the face of your arguments, proudly inform them that it isn’t so -- there is no longer any such entitlement. You are entitled to defend your opinion. Failing that, you have no right to your opinion at all.

VOTE MESNER 2012

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