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How many times have your found yourself in a discussion in which you have just buttressed your argument with a particularly profound and salient fact, only to be hit with the rejoinder: “Well, you certainly have a right to your own opinion.” This pre-emptive blow has the effect of ending the discussion, and leaving you nonplussed.
But, just hold on a second. What your opponent means by “you have a right to your own opinion,” is, actually, that he thinks he has a right to his opinion, and that all opinions should be considered co-equal. As the great Roman orator Cicero once said: “Opinions are like a$$holes; everyone has one, and thinks everyone else’s stinks.”
OK, maybe it was Demosthenes who said that. Anyway, the notion that all opinions are valuable is an odd by-product of a democracy such as ours, which is based upon the manifestly untrue concept that all men are created equal. Opinions informed by facts and reason are certainly more likely to be valid and useful than opinions based upon ignorance and emotion. In a culture which admonishes us to “get in touch with our feelings,” it becomes increasingly difficult to explain to people why rationality is the antitheses of emotion.
We are of the opinion that jumping off the Clark Memorial Bridge into the Ohio River can have an adverse effect upon one’s health, happiness, and future earning capacity. You may be of the opposite opinion, but you act upon that opinion at your peril. And we may have a moral duty to attempt to prevent your finding out the truth the hard way. A true friend will always tell you when you’re wrong.
The semantic problem, of course, is the confusing idea of what a “right” is. If ever a common term was in bad need of disambiguation, that one is. A right is something implicit in your nature, or granted to you by your rulers (or Creator), which the rest of us are obliged to honor. Your right creates a correlative duty on the part of all around you.
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you have a right to live. There is an oblique reference to this right in our Declaration of Independence, but the U.S. Constitution allows the government to deprive you of your right to live, so long as you are afforded “due process” before your execution. Well, your right to life imposes a duty upon the rest of us not to kill you. And, since these rights and duties are reciprocal among citizens it seems to work out satisfactorily; at least in the eastern part of Metro Louisville.
Similarly, you have a right to the use and value of your own property (provided you obtained this ownership legally), and the rest of us have a duty to respect this right. Conversely, you don’t have a right to the property of another person, unless there is an agreed-upon exchange.
But nowadays, folks are claiming a right to all sorts of things. Healthcare, decent housing, education, prescription medicine, sexual gratification, and myriad other commodities are now being declared to be “rights.” If you really have a right to healthcare, then the rest of us must have some sort of duty to provide it (or at least pay for it). You can see where this leads. Soon, all of us will be responsible for the needs of all of the rest of us, like one big interdependent family. Kumbaya. Sadly, there’s a name for this sort of utopian economy, and the last century is littered with the corpses of hundreds of millions of souls who were sacrificed on the altar of economic brotherhood.
So, if you really do have a “right” to your own opinion, what duty does that impose upon the rest of us? Certainly, we don’t have an obligation to agree with you. We don’t have to concede that your opinion is of equal value to the opinions of other, more rational or more knowledgeable individuals. All your “right” really amounts to is that we are all enjoined from killing you to end your ignorance.
Can you go to jail for having the wrong opinion? Here, in the land of the free and home of the brave? Actually, if you keep your opinions to yourself, you’re pretty much safe. But, implicit in “right to your own opinion” is the freedom to express that opinion in word and print. If your opinion involves the superiority of one racial group over another, the desirability (or undesirability) of certain sexual proclivities, slanderous accusations, or the pressing need of assassinating one or more public figures, then you may discover that your right to express yourself is not quite as broad as you first imagined.
It’s a hard concept to get one’s mind around, but you really don’t have an unlimited right to your own opinion. You don’t have a right to be wrong. In a civil society, you may have the freedom to express a wrong-headed idea, but this is merely license, and not a right. Don’t be surprised if someone points this out to you. Any person who shows you that you are ignorant is your friend. Lao-Tzu said: “What is a good man, but a bad man’s teacher? What is a bad man, but a good man’s job.”
It is equally difficult to explain to folks who think they ought to have an opinion on every topic why their ignorance is a danger to themselves and all around them. As former San Francisco Examiner writer Mark Twain (not his real name) once observed: “Everyone is ignorant; only about different things.”
So, the next time someone allows that “you have a right to your own opinion,” you might respond: “We were not discussing anyone’s right to an opinion, and the fact that you are attempting to change the subject gives the clear indication that you find my argument incontrovertible.” Or, you can simply say: “WTF? Right to your own opinion? Where’d you get that idea, you moron?”
CAVEAT: Don’t try this at any venue where alcoholic beverages are being served, or if you are engaged in conversation with a female; particularly one with whom you share living arrangements, or one with whom you intend to spend the night. At least, that’s our opinion.