Coping: No, actually, you don’t have a right to your own opinion
‘Right’ implies that others are obliged to respect ill-informed views
Nate Diaz applies a choke hold to win by submission against Conor McGregor recently. Photograph: Rey del Rio/Getty Images
At my brother’s wedding, I took a moment’s respite from the jollity and stepped out into the night for some air.
As I was pondering the day, I looked forward to watching the fights. As a devoted fan of mixed martial arts, I will often stay up to watch events live from the US late at night. This was the recent Conor McGregor versus Nate Diaz bout, the one that would result in McGregor’s first loss since 2010.
A man approached me. “Yer man in there says you’re staying up to watch the fights. Brutal sport that is. I’m surprised that someone like you would be interested in that kind of barbaric nonsense.”
Looking at him mildly, I recollected that this is the opinion reflected in most Irish media coverage. Generally, people who specialise in other sports and don’t understand that mixed martial arts is a conglomeration of several combat sports or what the rules are condemn it without learning much about it.
I asked the man what he meant by “brutal”, and he immediately seemed to lose his footing. I asked him if he knew the rules that would apply to tonight’s fight. He didn’t. I asked him to justify his assertion that it is barbaric by asking him why he thought so.
He said something about the fact that there aren’t any rules, and I reminded him that he had already told me he didn’t know what the rules are. I explained some of the basic ones to him.
“Oh,” he said, bristling with disgruntlement. “Well I’m entitled to my own opinion.”
We use this defence a lot in our everyday lives, and I am always struck by the poor logic of it. In his book, Crimes Against Logic, the philosopher Jamie Whyte explains why defending a position by stating we have a right to an opinion is a logical fallacy. It is well worth a read for an in-depth exposition on the bad arguments that “politicians, priests, journalists, and other serial offenders use”.
Rights create duties, so that when I have a right, someone else has an obligation to provide me with it. If we have a right to healthcare, someone else has a duty to provide it. A liberty is something I am entitled to pursue such that nobody is permitted to interfere.
We are at liberty to express our opinion, in that no one should stop us, but we don’t have a right to do so, as that would entail that others are obliged to listen to or respect our opinion in some way.
So yes, we have a theoretical right to express an opinion. I can say whatever I want about any topic even if I haven’t informed myself about it, but without the skeleton of educated information, that opinion simply isn’t relevant. I am entitled to my opinion in the same way that, during an argument about an issue such as immigration, I am entitled to respond to the factual assertions of my opponent by making duck noises. I can do it, but it’s meaningless.
Although we are entitled to express an opinion, it doesn’t follow that the person we are talking to has an obligation to respect or even listen to a perspective if it is poorly informed.
Most importantly, stating “Well I have a right to my opinion” during a dispute is a public declaration that you have lost that dispute and have no defences left. Only when we cannot justify what we are saying with good reasons any more do we use that phrase. It is a way of refusing to consider someone else’s better-informed perspective, a way of hanging on to our initial view despite it being disproven. It is a way of saying “I can utter whatever I want whether or not it is justifiable or true, and you can’t disrespect it”.
Of course, this statement, in a conversation about immigration, or Trump versus Clinton, or anything else, is completely irrelevant. Saying “I’m entitled to my opinion” has no relation to whether Trump or Clinton would make a better president. It is as relevant to say “baby seals have sweet faces”.
If you are going to express an opinion, make it an informed one.