Why You Are Not Entitled To Your Opinion

It’s an aggravating phrase — “you are entitled to your opinion” — often used to damper meaningful dialogue. President Bush used the phrase recently while being interviewed in the Middle East. The interviewer premised his question by asserting that the situation in Iraq, overall, looks bleak. President Bush took exception and dismissed the premise of the question by stating, “You are entitled to your opinion.”

Michael Strong in his book, “The Habit of Thought: From Socratic Seminars to Socratic Practice,” points out that many children actually think that most everything is a matter of opinion. Strong’s reading teaching technique is to work with students in a small circle group and together with them read a short reading selection. Strong says that the best reading selection is a selection where all of the words are easily recognizable but that deals with concepts that are challenging and thoughtful. The reading group together decodes the meaning of the text phrase by phrase, discussing together each participant’s understand of what the author is saying. This process requires some reflective thinking that is foreign to many children, because many children have never been held accountable for understanding or evaluating their own thought, let alone the thought of another. Strong says that a child’s defense for lazy or unexamined thinking often is to say: “You have your opinion, I have my opinion. It (the reading) can mean anything you want it to mean.” And the teacher keeps bringing the group back to: but our task it to understand what the author is actually saying, and neither my opinion nor your opinion can change the words on the page.

In this post, I wrote about that the Kettering Foundation and about the National Issues Forum. The NIF sounds like an interesting organization. The purpose of the NIF is to bring people together, “to reason and talk — to deliberate common problems.” “Deliberation” is a great term, but, if the point of deliberation is to increase understanding, deliberation, by itself is of very limited value — if, people are basically just sharing “opinions.” More important than opinions are the words on the page: the facts, the history and reality of the situation. I’d like to know how a NIF forum actually works.

“You’re entitled to your opinion” is a defense for lazy thinking, and, sometimes it is a phrase used to stop dialogue rather than encourage dialogue, as illustrated in the Bush reference above. But more than that, it is a phrase that perpetuates a huge error, because, in fact, you really don’t have a right to believe anything you want to believe — not, that is, if you expect to be considered a member of rational humanity — and it is wrong to think that you do. You’re not entitled to believe that the Holocaust never happened; you’re not entitled to believe that Barack Obama is a Moslem; you’re not entitled to believe that government revenues increase when taxes are cut; you’re not entitled to believe the moon is made of cheese. You’re not entitled to believe an author means X, when the words on the page are communicating that he means Not X.

Our constitution tells us that we are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But no one is entitled to act like a lunatic and we have laws whereby lunatic behavior is punished. But no one is entitled to think like a lunatic either, to assert “opinions” that, in fact, refute reality. Of course plenty of people think like lunatics and are guaranteed by our constitution freedom of speech and freedom of thought. But I think it is good to think of entitlement, not in a narrow legal sense, but, as the endowment given to us as humans. In that sense, our entitlement is to be right, not to be wrong, to think clearly, not to think erroneously. Our entitlement is to survive and flourish, not to be exterminated. Our millions of years of evolution has endowed us, entitled us, to be equipped for survival and the key to this survival has proven to be our capacity to think clearly. It is increasingly obvious that without the effective use of clear thinking humanity is doomed. We humans have advanced this far because of our capacity to reason and to discern the truth.

Even so, humanity continually embraces all types of lunacy and lunacy, throughout history, has brought untold misery to the world. Even now, it is lunacy that is the biggest threat to the world’s future. History shows a lot of examples of what havoc erroneous thinking and crazy theories can bring when given the upper hand.

For our very survival, we need to bring more clear thinking to bear on all that challenges us. As a democracy, it is every citizen’s responsibility to do his or her part to think clearly. We too often emphasize that it is our right to hold opinions contrary to reality — I’m entitled to my opinion — but what needs to be emphasized is our responsibility as good citizens to know what reality actually is so that we can, in fact, make sound judgments. No one is entitled to destroy our democracy through anarchy and terror, but no one is entitled to destroy our democracy through ignorance and slothful thinking either.

No one is “entitled” to hold an opinion that something is true when patently it is false.

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5 Responses to Why You Are Not Entitled To Your Opinion

  1. Rick says:

    Obviously Mr. Strong is not a post modernist.

  2. Brian Miller says:

    A lot of reasonable people think what is taking place in Iraq is a good thing. Not in the sense of war and death, but in that in the end a dictatorship will have ended, democracy will prevail, people will have a better way of life, or whatever positive results they’re desiring. But, that isn’t my point here.

    My point is, just because your opinion from Bush’s differs doesn’t mean he (or anyone else – I’m not a fan of the guy) can’t use that phrase. I doubt he wanted to take time to go into an extended interview explaining what we already know about his feelings.

    “Plenty of people think like lunatics” – lunacy according to whom? You? I’m amazed when folks promote censoring speech and, even better yet, thought. Obama did it recently by telling the media they can’t talk about his wife even though she’s up on the podium campaigning for him. You are assuming everyone interprets things the same way and if they don’t then they are crazy. THAT is crazy! You’re meshing together many subjective categories.

    I agree with some of what you say, but thought-police ideology isn’t an answer. There is rarely a “right,” and some of the greatest philosophers would agree that most things are opinion.

    “Beauty is no quality in things themselves. It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them.”
    – David Hume

  3. Mike Bock says:

    Brian, thanks for commenting. In response to my assertion that, “Plenty of people think like lunatics,” you ask: “Lunacy according to whom? You?” I seem stuck on the word, “lunacy” today, and now finally I looked up its meaning in the dictionary. It always strikes me as a humorous word. The first definition says that lunacy means insanity, but the second definition gets more to the meaning I have in mind, “Wild foolishness: extravagant folly.” So no, determining lunacy is not up to me or any one individual because lunacy is so far off the norm that there is pretty much universal recognition of it when it appears. It is not a close call. I don’t think there is much of an argument that the good people of Heaven’s Gate were acting with “amazing wild foolishness and extravagant folly” when they committed group suicide, for example.

    When I say, “Plenty of people think like lunatics,” I am stating the obvious: plenty of people base their thinking on wild assumptions and unsupportable premises. Their thinking process itself may seem rational, but people who think like lunatics start their thinking with assumptions and opinions that are downright lethal. How is it that any person can think themselves into becoming a suicide bomber, destroying their life and many other lives as well? From the viewpoint of almost everyone, such action is extravagant folly, but, to the bomber, it is a well thought out decision.

    The key to our survival lies in our capacity to think clearly. I disagree with your assertion that “There is rarely a ‘right,’ and some of the greatest philosophers would agree that most things are opinion.” If you are trapped in a burning building, you’d better hope that someone knows the way out and that it’s not just a matter of opinion. If you are in a recession, you better hope that someone knows the way out and its not just a matter of opinion. There may not be a “right” way as in “one best way,” but there sure are myriads of wrong ways, ineffective or lethal ways. And we better hope that someone has some actual knowledge with which to give enlightenment. We need to base our thinking on reality, and not think like lunatics. You write, “A lot of reasonable people think what is taking place in Iraq is a good thing,” but really what are the premises that guides these reasonable people’s thinking? Do they have any idea of what they are saying? If they could see the actual devastation, the destruction of families, in Iraq; if they could get a grip on the grief and the loss this war has caused to Iraqis and Americans would they still think it a good thing? Do these reasonable people really know enough to think clearly about this issue?

    You quote David Hume: “Beauty is no quality in things themselves. It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them.” But I like Keats’ comment better, that beauty is truth and truth is beauty.

  4. Conservative says:

    If there are any true conservatives (or closed minded fools according to the blog above) out there you have got to check out http://www.reluctantrepublicansformccain.com

    A rally point for the disenfranchised conservatives

  5. Oprah says:

    Mike, you wrote that “Our constitution tells us that we are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Two sentences later, you wrote, “But no one is entitled…to assert ‘opinions’ that, in fact, refute reality. ” Didn’t your first claim violate the second? After all, it’s the Declaration of Independence, a rhetorical document, not the Constitution, a legal document, that mentions life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

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