One of the most deeply held beliefs in American culture is that everyone has the right to his or her opinion. Of course, no reasonable person would deny that such a right exists because the right to express an idea guaranteed in the Constitution includes the right to form and hold that idea.
But the modern view of the right to an opinion goes far beyond that reasonable interpretation. It claims that having the right to an opinion makes that opinion right. In other words, if I believe something to be true, it has the force of fact and therefore other people should respect it and not challenge it.
People who hold this view of opinion regard it as an intellectual sanctuary from the disagreement and criticism of others, much as medieval miscreants regarded cathedrals as a physical sanctuary from kings and princes.
That view of opinion is very different from the traditional view, which held that people have a right to hold and express opinions but that neither sincerity nor firmness of belief guarantees their soundness. In other words, we can be convinced that our opinions are right even when they are wrong.
Leonardo da Vinci surely had this wiser view in mind when he wrote, “The greatest deception men suffer from is their own opinions.” And Samuel Johnson echoed his perspective when he observed: “Such is the consequence of too high an opinion of our own powers and knowledge; it makes us in youth negligent, and in age useless; it teaches us too soon to be satisfied with our attainments; or it makes our attainments unpleasing, unpopular, and ineffectual; it neither suffers us to learn, nor to teach; but withholds us from those, by whom we might be instructed, and drives those from us, whom we might instruct.”
Once we grasp the modern view of opinion, we can understand the mischief it has caused. For example:
Many people forming and expressing opinions without any evidence other than their feelings or whims. (From their perspective, evidence is unnecessary because their opinions are self-justifying.)
Elected officials refusing to consider alternative viewpoints on issues because they believe any view that challenges theirs must be wrong and compromise is therefore out of the question.
College students shouting down guest speakers who hold opposing views because they are convinced they already possess the whole truth and therefore have nothing to learn from others—indeed, that opposing views are an offense against them.
Filmmaker Oliver Stone arguing that his ignoring of fact in his film JFK was justified because it expressed “an inner truth.”
Journalists slanting their reporting about issues (such as global warming or illegal immigration) by mixing in their personal opinions and ignoring facts that contradict those opinions. (Note: In 1923 the American Society of Newspaper Editors advised journalists to put their personal views aside when they report, stating “Sound practice makes [a] clear distinction between news reports and expressions of opinion. News reports should be free from opinion or bias of any kind.”)
Editors and politicians mocking or demonizing candidates they don’t support. For example, the Daily News running the headline “God Isn’t Fixing This” and mocking candidates’ Cruz, Paul, Graham, and Speaker Ryan for their prayers for the victims of the December 2 mass shooting in California. Then, the next day not only refusing to apologize but also including among the photos of the terrorists a photo of the National Rifle Association president.
A crowd shouting down presidential candidate Martin O’Malley for saying that “all lives matter,” not just black lives. (On this and other occasions, supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement have been so fanatical about their slogan that they absurdly denied the very humanity of non-blacks.)
People expressing outrage and demanding a harsh penalty when a woman taped her dog’s mouth shut, yet remaining silent when Planned Parenthood doctors were revealed to be selling human body parts from late term abortions.
Donald Trump, when asked his basis for holding an opinion, responding by repeating the opinion or changing the subject. (The clear implication is that he believes his opinions needn’t be supported.)
At the very time when the news is filled with continuing atrocities by members of ISIS, President Obama publicly stating that climate change is the “worst problem” facing humanity, and Attorney General Loretta Lynch declaring that her “greatest fear” is the “incredibly disturbing rise of anti-Muslim rhetoric.”
There is no easy way to overcome the misunderstanding of the right to one’s opinion that produces such irresponsible words and actions. There is only the slow process of restoring right understanding in the schools and the communications media. Key precepts to be conveyed include these:
An opinion may be sound or unsound. Which it is depends entirely on the degree to which it is supported by the facts.
Because it is easy to be swayed by bias, limited understanding, and hasty judgment, responsible people form firm opinions only after examining relevant evidence and drawing the most reasonable conclusions (as opposed to the ones that flatter their sentiments).
Whoever asserts an opinion should be willing both to explain how he/she reached that opinion and to give a fair hearing to those who reason differently.
Changing one’s mind in the face of a better argument or new evidence is an intellectual strength, not a weakness.
Not until the exalting of opinion that has occurred over the last half-century is overcome can meaningful dialogue be restored and real solutions to the nation’s problems found.
Copyright © 2015 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved