I’m sure you’ve heard the expression ‘everyone is entitled to their opinion.’ Perhaps you’ve even said it yourself, maybe to head off an argument or bring one to a close.
If I were to say that you are only entitled to that which you can argue for or are willing and able to defend, many of you would rise up against the assertion and accuse me of all manner of arrogance and condescension.
However, I'm of the belief that while we are entitled to our opinions, once we opt to express them in an open and public forum, we are inviting disagreement in the form of challenge, and thus are obligated to defend our opinions publicly articulated.
A bit harsh? Perhaps, but we owe it to ourselves and each other to construct and defend a valid argument, couched in fact and/or science– and to recognize when a belief or opinion has become indefensible.
The problem with “I’m entitled to my opinion” is that, all too often, it’s used to shelter beliefs that should have been abandoned. It becomes shorthand for “I can say or think whatever I like” – and by extension, continuing to argue is somehow disrespectful. And this attitude feeds into the false equivalence between experts and non-experts that is an increasingly pernicious feature of our public discourse.
What is an opinion?
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.”
So what does it mean to be “entitled” to an opinion?
If “Everyone’s entitled to their opinion” just means no-one has the right to stop people thinking and saying whatever they want, then the statement is true, but fairly trivial. No one can stop you saying that vaccines cause autism, no matter how many times that claim has been disproven.
But if ‘entitled to an opinion’ means ‘entitled to have your views treated as serious candidates for the truth’ then it’s pretty clearly false. And this too is a distinction that tends to get blurred.
Don't confuse not having your views taken seriously with not being allowed to hold or express those views at all.
Put another way, Don't confuse losing an argument with losing the right to argue.
Again, two senses of “entitlement” to an opinion are being conflated.
A final note: A valid challenge of your opinion is not a personal attack.
By the same token, a personal attack is not a valid challenge of an opinion.
This, too, is all too often confused and conflated here.
A valid or legitimate or substantive challenge of an opinion rests on the facts the challenger brings to bear on the argument or case expressed or asserted by the writer.
Asking for the sources the author has relied on is not the challenge.
The expression of contravening facts with appropriate or relevant source material is the challenge.
Disrespectful, obscene, and vulgar epithets, invective, and insults are not valid or legitimate challenges to an opinion.
The primary rule of civil discourse ought to be that we can agree to disagree without being disagreeable.
In this regard social media should not differ greatly from the halls of justice , the floor of a deliberative body, or the walls of academia...