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No right to an opinion

All men are created equal. All opinions aren't. Sure, anybody can hold one, and is free to express it. But of what value is an "opinion" that's based on faulty, insubstantial, incomplete, irrelevant or nonexistent information? Answer: None. In Harper's Mark Slouka writes ("A Quibble") about what may be the most important subject of our lifetimes... in my opinion:

A generation ago the proof of our foolishness, held up to our faces, might still have elicited some redeeming twinge of shame -- no longer. [...]

...[We] we feel, as if truth were a matter of personal taste, or something to be divined in the human heart, like love. I was raised to be ashamed of my ignorance, and to try to do something about it if at all possible. I carry that burden to this day, and have successfully passed it on to my children. I don't believe I have the right to an opinion about something I know nothing about -- constitutional law, for example, or sailing -- a notion that puts me sadly out of step with a growing majority of my countrymen, many of whom may be unable to tell you anything at all about Islam, say, or socialism, or climate change, except that they hate it, are against it, don't believe in it. Worse still (or more amusing, depending on the day) are those who can tell you, and then offer up a stew of New Age blather, right-wing rant, and bloggers' speculation that's so divorced from actual, demonstrable fact, that's so not true, as the kids would say, that the mind goes numb with wonder. "Way I see it is," a man in the Tulsa Motel 6 swimming pool told me last summer, "if English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it's good enough for us." [...]

Although perfectly willing to recognize expertise in basketball, for example, or refrigerator repair, when it comes to the realm of ideas, all folks (and their opinions) are suddenly created equal. [...]

But there's more. Not only do we believe that opinion (our own) trumps expertise; we then go further and demand that expertise assume the position -- demand, that is, that those with actual knowledge supplicate themselves to the Believers, who don't need to know. The logic here, if that's the term, seems to rest on the a priori conviction that belief and knowledge are separate and unequal. Belief is higher, nobler; it comes from the heart; it feels like truth. There's a kind of Biblical grandeur to hit, and as God's chosen, we have an inherent right to it. Knowledge, on the other hand, is impersonal, easily manipulated, inherently suspect. Like the facts it's based on, it's slippery, insubstantial -- not solid like the things you believe.

The corollary to the axiom that belief beats knowledge, of course, is that ordinary folks shouldn't value the latter too highly, and should be suspicious of those who do. Which may explain our inherent discomfort with argument. We may not know much, but at least we know what we believe. Tricky elitists, on the other hand, are always going on. Confusing things. We don't trust them....

That part about the discomfort with (or distrust of) argument really hit home with me. It is rare that any discussion -- in politics, or in private -- today concerns itself with the substance of what was said rather than meaningless speculation about someone's motive for saying it. And yet, if it's true, or if it's false, it doesn't matter who said it or why. There's evidence, or there's lack of evidence, and the degree of certainty behind any conclusion rests on that alone -- but how many Opinionaters even make reference to externally verifiable facts when spouting an argument? It's not a crime to be uncertain, or to weigh evidence that supports or does not support a particular point of view. It's just worthless to base the certainty of an opinion on uncertainty. (I'm talking to you, Ben Stein...)

So, yeah, we are fortunate to live in a place and time where we have the legal rights to express opinions, no matter how flimsy or baseless or nasty. That doesn't mean we have the moral right to do so without being held accountable -- or subject to shame or ridicule...

(tip: Andrew Sullivan)

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