Several weeks ago, somebody on a friend’s Facebook (not on mine), posted this gem:
Several people immediately pointed out that that is a rather heartless thing to say. Is the person who posted this suggesting that forcing somebody to pay for something they don’t want is worse than hanging homosexuals, “recruiting” child soldiers, throwing acid on women, domestic violence, etc.? The poster immediately fled behind everybody’s favorite excuse these days, “Well, that’s just my opinion.” Well, your opinion is cruel and inhuman, as well as stupid.
The thing is, we’ve started to raise the opinion up as being superior to fact. It’s a wide-spread acceptance of the Middle Ground Fallacy. This fallacy, also called the Argument to Moderation, basically assumes that there are two sides to every issue, with extremes on a continuum. Neither extreme can be entirely correct, so the correct answer must lie someplace in the middle. However, as Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne pointed out, “One side can be wrong.” Just because something is your opinion, doesn’t mean that it can’t or shouldn’t be questioned (also, “your” Facebook is still a public forum, hate to break it to you). Your opinion could be based on false premises, it could be based on no premise other than “because I said so,” it could be factually incorrect, it could be poorly thought out. There are lots of reasons that an opinion that is unsupported by facts can simply be wrong.
Let’s look at some of the dumb and informed opinions floating around right now.
Rep. James Lankford (R-OK) seems to think that not only should gay people be fired for being gay, but also that that’s not what he’s saying when he says they shouldn’t be protected by workplace anti-discrimination laws. Now, obviously, these two thoughts taken in conjunction make no sense, and Rep. Lankford is no fool, so I’m going to presume that he knows they mean exactly the same thing and also knows that his opinion that gay people should be fired for their sexual orientation is going to be widely reported as him being a bigot. Because he is. That may be his opinion, but it’s not built on any factual information that would justify the firing. He simply doesn’t like gay people, would prefer they stay as closeted as possible, and intends to pass legislation to make being out as difficult as he can make it.
Michael Brown, another anti-gay bigot, was recently on David Pakman’s radio show where he made an utter fool of himself. Essentially, instead of allowing his blatantly false statements slide, Pakman challenged Brown with data that contradicted what he was saying. Brown saw this as “gotcha” journalism and accused Pakman of not being serious. Because, of course, these things he was saying were his opinions and therefore beyond reproach.
John Derbeyshire was recently fired from the National Review, a right-wing website, because of an incredibly racist article he wrote and published. I mean, more racist than he usually is. As a result, he now works for white supremacist organization VDARE, and started with this gem, which I’ll publish a bit of here:
Leaving aside the intended malice, I actually think “White Supremacist” is not bad semantically. White supremacy, in the sense of a society in which key decisions are made by white Europeans, is one of the better arrangements History has come up with. There have of course been some blots on the record, but I don’t see how it can be denied that net-net, white Europeans have made a better job of running fair and stable societies than has any other group.
I’m not sure what metrics he’s working off of, but with no attempt to support this opinion, I think that despite it being his honest opinion, we can dismiss it out of hand, and even invoke Hitchens’s Razor on it. And please, spare me any “well, it’s obvious” or “everybody knows” arguments. Argumentum ad populum.
Not only was Bristol Palin absolutely wrong that the president considering the opinions of his wife and daughter is the same as conservative women politicians saying they think they should submit to their husbands in all things, anybody who said or suggested she should die or never had been born are also wrong. Their opinions and beliefs are wrong, they are bad, they are immoral, and we shouldn’t pretend that they are credible just because they’re believed.
I think we get the idea. There are really two ways this can be taken, though: people who are wrong on factual grounds, and people who hold unpopular opinions that don’t want to have to suffer consequences for doing so. The latter aren’t necessarily “wrong,” but hiding behind their opinion still encourages them to continue to hold these opinions, often without a good reason.
Let’s begin with factual grounds. Have you gotten breathless emails about how Obama has enacted all sorts of gun restrictions? Or that studies prove that children raised by an opposite sex couples are better off than ones raised by same sex couples? Or that the wage gap is a myth? These are all lies. They are factually incorrect. They are what Swift would have called “The Thing that is Not“. No amount of them being somebody’s opinion makes these things factually true. I implore you as my readers (who are clearly a higher form of sentient being) not to allow people to get away with making incorrect fact claims and then trying to hide behind “Well, that’s my opinion,” as if that makes them more factual. The proper response is, “And your opinion is factually incorrect.”
The other category are what I will dub “uncomfortable opinions.” These are often just poorly thought out. Let’s take the person referenced at the beginning of this post. I don’t think that person really believes that taxation is more tyrannical than, say, sex slavery. But they didn’t really think. They read something that sounded good, made them feel righteous, so they reposted it. I’m not saying that’s any more of an excuse: getting behind a manifestly dumb statement because you didn’t really consider it doesn’t mean you didn’t support it, only that you should think about things in the future. But there’s no particular malice associated with that.
Similarly, sometimes people will appeal to beliefs and opinions in order to provide cover for other people, as if they’re being kind. One of the things that jumps to mind is the response from the headmaster of Mesa Prep school in Arizona when a Catholic high school team refused to play them in the baseball state finals because Mesa Prep has a girl (an openly female one, at that!) on their team. The Mesa Prep headmaster said, “It takes tremendous moral courage to stand by what it is you believe, and they are doing what they think is right.” I get that he’s trying to sound gracious, but he’s absolutely wrong. They believe something terrible, something that has been believed by millions of people for centuries and every single one of them has been wrong: that women are weak, incapable, and less than men by virtue of being women. It takes absolutely no more courage to believe that than it takes “moral courage” to believe like Derbyshire that white Europeans are superior to anybody else. The proper response to this one is, “It’s a shame that sexism is still so much of an issue in today’s society and I feel sorry for the kids on both sides for being cheated of what would have undoubtedly been an excellent game.” You don’t praise people for holding abhorrent positions, even if it sounds like you’re being nice to them by doing so.
Now, this is not to say that all opinions are dumb or that we should dismiss everybody’s opinion. Opinions are analyses of things, they’re what we have when we’ve thought about something and, given a choice, favor one thing over another. There’s nothing wrong with that and we can make very little progress without opinions. The issue, however, is that the way that opinions facilitate progress is through discussion, which means that “it’s just my opinion” needs to be an invitation to question, not a way to end discussion.
Further, there are opinions that genuinely have no right answer. For example, I think Firefly is the greatest show ever made (it is), and I think the designated hitter rule is for teams who can’t strategize. As strong of opinions as I have about these things, I recognize that ultimately they are low-risk propositions. If somebody instead thinks that Farscape or NCIS is the greatest show ever made, it makes very little difference. We can debate the finer points of the shows, discuss writing and continuity and plot and character and the worst case scenario is that we stalemate, though more likely both sides will gain a better appreciation for the other show. Similarly, you can claim that designated hitters lead to more home runs and spectacular, exciting plays because you have a rested player who’s only job is to hit the ball as far and high as possible and run. There is nothing really at stake in either of these situations, and a healthy respect for the opinions of others facilitates new thoughts and can increase the enjoyment of all involved.
Personal note: I’ve had the Firefly/Farscape discussion and it helped me learn to enjoy Farscape, a show that really didn’t catch my attention previously. I still don’t consider it better than Firefly, but I do consider it better than I did before. This wasn’t a zero sum argument in which the supremacy of my opinion necessarily invalidates another opinion. I can enjoy Firefly and Farscape without having to choose only one to like, so it really doesn’t much matter if somebody’s love of Farscape is “I just do.” It’s not a great reason and won’t get me to watch the show, but nothing is lost by that person’s lack of specific reasons for holding their opinion.
That all being said, when we do have a zero sum argument, I feel absolutely no obligation to immediately “respect” any opinion unless it’s backed up by facts. Furthermore, I don’t see how not questioning something is in any way “respectful.” For example, in another David Pakman segment we see him talking with discredited researcher Paul Cameron who makes a lot of really unsupportable statements and attempts a number of rhetorical tricks to try and seem reasonable. Was Pakman “disrespectful” in any way by asking that Cameron clarify how his statements were connected to one another? Shouldn’t that be the job of the person making a statement to be able to explain why their statement is an accurate reflection of reality?
Ultimately, we don’t have to and shouldn’t be dismissive of opinions. However, we need to weigh every opinion against the objective information we can bring to bear and not be afraid to ask those with opinions that they justify them in some way. Even more than that, we have to be willing to accept the consequences of our opinions, which means that sometimes people won’t like us. If you hold bigoted opinions, people will think you’re a bigot, and claiming that you’re not, those are just your opinions, doesn’t change that. John Derbyshire is a racist, Rush Limbaugh is a misogynist, Mississippi state rep Bubba Carpenter is a callous asshole who thinks women should die for his moral values. They have opinions, but those being opinions does not shield them from criticism. Nor should we allow “opinions” or “beliefs” to be excuses to not have to justify the unjustifiable.