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why you’re not entitled to your opinion

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Last year my friend linked me to an absolutely brilliant article written by Patrick Stokes, a Lecturer in Philosophy at Deakin University, and I have not been able to stop thinking about it since. Because this man said everything that I had always thought, but had never before been able to put into words:

You are not entitled to your opinion. You are only entitled to what you can argue for.

Now he wasn’t saying that people can’t believe whatever they want, because obviously they can. Nor was he saying that people can’t have different preferences. What the article was about was that too often we confuse our opinion with truth and offer it out to others like it is evidence.

You can’t imagine my relief when I read this. Finally! An article that gave me a reason not to care in the slightest when someone, who was clearly in the wrong, cried, ‘But I’m entitled to my opinion!’ Because what shuts down an argument more than those words? HOW can you even argue with that? We are all entitled to our opinion. That is the beauty of a democracy. We can all believe whatever we feel like.

But why do those words stop an argument? Particularly when you know you’re in the right, and the only argument in the other’s defence is that ‘they can believe it if they want to’. And yes, that may be so, but it certainly has no place in a serious discussion.

I’m not talking about little arguments to do with personal preference, like me thinking that mashed potatoes are gross and my mother (who served them with every childhood meal) strongly disagreeing. But it’s the big things; the arguments that hit the headlines that have nothing to do with opinion and everything to do with fact. Take Patrick’s example about the Australian Vaccination Network (a misleading name if ever there was one). Despite all evidence to the contrary, this group claims that there is a link between autism and vaccinations. They also demand that their views be given equal weight to that of medical professionals and researchers, saying that all views should be heard. But why should their views be heard if they have no qualifications or evidence to back up what they’re saying?

Discriminatory and bigoted statements fill the daily papers and are the first headlines you see on online news blogs, with opinion being offered in lieu of facts. The Australian Christian Lobby is against same-sex marriage because they believe that it will ruin the sanctity of marriage. As same-sex marriage is perfectly legal in Massachusetts, America and has been for years without having any kind of impact on anyone else’s marriage, the ACL are very clearly wrong. Yet we as society listen to what they’re saying because we have been taught to respect, or at least listen to, everyone’s opinion. But there is a difference between acknowledging that someone has an opinion and giving it any sort of power at all.

If someone is wrong then they are wrong. That they are entitled to think whatever they like doesn’t change the evidence. As Patrick says, ‘this response confuses not having your views taken seriously with not being allowed to hold or express those views at all – or to borrow a phrase from Andrew Brown, it “confuses losing an argument with losing the right to argue.” Again, two senses of “entitlement” to an opinion are being conflated here.’

So yes, the Australian Vaccination Network; yes those that say same-sex couples tying the knot will ruin the sanctity of marriage: you are perfectly entitled to your opinion. But if the only evidence that you can offer is that you believe it, then no one has to give your argument any power, and they certainly don’t have to treat your opinion as if it is in any way relevant to fact.

One thought on “why you’re not entitled to your opinion

  1. You say “Now he wasn’t saying that people can’t believe whatever they want, because obviously they can.”

    It is not true.
    In many countries, there are laws that forbid some beliefs (e.g., racists beliefs or religious beliefs). Furthermore, some beliefs are forbid by social presure.

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