Own Your Opinion

Think

Every year in first year humanities classes you get something like the following:

“This is just my opinion and everyone is free to disagree, but I think x”.

Don’t be that person. Why not? Four reasons:

First, you are at university to learn. Surely your intention is to get some knowledge. Well here’s the thing: scientific method is the only system we have for getting knowledge, and it works by presenting testable hypotheses. If a hypothesis passes tests then it stands until a future test refutes it.

When you put your hypothesis into the ring it isn’t your opinion, it is your hypothesis, and you want it tested by arguments that other people bring up to counter your thesis. You are only entitled to your opinion as long as it stands up to refutation. Similarly, other people are only entitled to their opinions so long as they stand up to refutation. 

So don’t hide behind an “opinion”, have a position. Be open to changing it, but also argue its case. Try to convince people of your position by way of argument. In the process, we all learn through critical rationality. 

Second, while (in a liberal society) everyone is entitled to their own opinion, they are not entitled to their own facts. Does your opinion follow from facts? Then it is not “just” an opinion. You should not say “people can disagree”, because they can’t if your facts and logic are sound.

Those who pay undue respect to “opinions” have sometimes been given a bastardised education in postmodernism at high school and come out thinking that everything is relative and so there is no standard of truth. But this isn’t correct. 

While norms are not accessible to scientific method they are accessible to logic and facts. Someone cannot hold the opinion that Keating never gave the Redfern address. Nor can they hold the opinion that nobody liked the Redfern address. They cannot even hold the opinion that Keating was incorrect in acknowledging that aboriginals remained structurally disadvantaged in Australian society, because the data clearly makes that case. 

They can have the opinion that contemporary indigenous policy has the wrong priorities, or is ineffectually designed, or simply bad, because these claims cannot be outright refuted given the available data. But these opinions too must stand on factual and logical claims, and these claims are accessible to critical reason. If someone holds one of these reasonable positions for invalid reasons then they are not entitled to the opinion. 

Almost all positions can be challenged in debate. Often participants will arrive at an impasse, but that should not dissuade anyone from challenging an idea they disagree with. 

Third, society and the individuals that make it up benefit from critical discussion, so don’t sugar-coat your opinions. Too often we respect opinions out of a misplaced desire to be culturally sensitive, tolerant or kind-hearted. But if you have strong reasons to think something is bad or dumb, why do you think that someone else, confronted by those reasons, would not hold the same view as you? If we don’t share our good reasons we can never develop. 

The most extreme manifestation of this attitude is what Karl Popper called The Myth of the Framework. It is the notion that two people operating in different paradigms, say Islam and liberal atheism, have nothing to gain from talking to each other.

Yet this is never the case. New ideas, even radically different new ideas, are always a stimulus. Tolerance and understanding can only be brought about through robust debates that end in impasses. Without that debate there will always be residual contempt for the “foolish” views of others, and we will ever be content to simply confirm our biases.

Finally, your opinions are fundamental to your identity. Are you so insecure in your identity that you think people should feel free to consider it stupid? Discovering that a much-cherished belief is actually ill-thought out garbage is certainly a painful process. But it is also profound – your personality is changing as a result of learning. Surely that’s why you’re studying the humanities! After an undergraduate degree spent hashing out your identity through critical debate you will be a deep, well rounded, authentic individual.  

So own your opinions. Engage in rigorous debate, politely. Learn logic, learn facts, equip yourself with an understanding of the theory of knowledge, then get out there and argue. 

The author blogs at markfabian.blogspot.