Every time a new set of migrants moves into Australia, every time the gay and lesbian community makes a statement, and every time a religion figure says something idiotic, the same phrase gets trotted out again and again.
I’m entitled to my opinion.
Whenever there is a clash of values, this seems to be the standard defense. These are my opinions and I’m entitled to them, regardless of what you might think of them. Just because they are different to yours doesn’t mean they’re any better or worse.
So what if that guy disagrees with climate change? Everyone’s entitled to their opinion! Who are you to say your beliefs are any more valid than someone else’s? If a Muslim woman wants to wear a hijab, then that is her right and you can keep your arguments to yourself.
Or as a certain, highly influential entity once said: Thou shalt not judge.
And to this collectively recognised and long respected bastion of our society, I have only one response:
You are not entitled to your opinion.
If we disagree about something, by definition there must be a reason we disagree about it. Our reasons will be based of how each of us understands of how the world works – generally this is based on evidence (If it’s based on faith, then we need to have a different conversation).
So if there’s a reason we disagree, and that disagreement is based on conflicting evidence, then the situation is absolute – someone is wrong. Not just different, but wrong. As in ‘irrational’. As in ‘misinformed’. As in ‘provably incorrect through the use of evidence’.
And I’m supposed to accept this situation on the basis that ‘you’re entitled to your opinion’? Since when does anyone have the right to be wrong? To make mistakes when they should know better? To go out and act in a way that leads to negative results and to encourage others to do the same, when the evidence is right in front of them?
But there’s a complication with this comfortable simple approach, and here it is: in any given disagreement it is very rare for one party to be entirely right or wrong. After all none of us is a god, none of us know how everything works perfectly. If we did, we could predict the future impeccably. Since we seem to struggle with whether the trains will run on time, claiming to be 100% right on anything is massively arrogant.
Liberals are not perfect. Conservatives are not perfect. As a result, when liberals and conservatives disagree they are almost certainly both wrong to some degree or another. Hell, both sides might be completely wrong, with the facts supporting a third option entirely.
A sensible way to resolve this is for the conflicting parties to sit down and calmly figure out which of their claims are supported by the best available evidence, and discard those that can’t stand up.
A considerably less rational way of dealing with it would be to say that everybody’s right and let’s not talk about it any more – we should all be more tolerant of obvious inaccuracies.
Sure, you can argue that if what another person thinks or does doesn’t hurt me, then it’s none of my business. You want to teach your kids creationism? Whatever man, just keep the stupid to yourselves and I don’t care.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a single thing an individual does, says or even thinks that does not eventually affect other people. And if it affects other people, those people will in turn affect those around them. Which eventually leads back to you and me.
The guy behind me at the football discusses how global warming is a scam with his friends is certainly not hurting me directly. But that’s 3 more people who disagree with climate change. Three more votes. Three more electricity users. Three more parents. Three more people with mouths to spread their opinions.
A kid I’ve never met from the other side of town thinks carrying a knife will make him feel safe. But if that kid gets caught, threatens someone, or even just tells his friends, more people are encouraged to carry a knife as well and suddenly I’m being frisked without a warrant at a train station.
And those parents who want to teach their kids creationism, in defiance of literally all the evidence ever found? Those lessons might not be inflicted on me, but the children certainly will be.
Tolerance of broken opinions perpetuates and encourages their existence. It tells us our beliefs are valid, regardless of whether they stand up to proof or not. Run into an uncomfortable question or idea? Never mind your head about it, but ignore it and go about your life, acting like the beliefs that underlay your behaviour and choices weren’t just proven to be broken!
If you cannot stand up and justify your beliefs before rational inquiry and justify them on the basis of evidence, then your beliefs are faulty. And since everything you do influences others around you, you do not have the right to hold faulty beliefs – no more than I have the right to punch another person in the face for fun.
This may sound extremely black and white, but bear in mind that this is exactly what every branch of human inquiry, from education, science, philosophy, engineering, to sport and media, has been actively doing for our entire history – trying to figure out what works, what is best, how we can improve and apply these discoveries. We discard old ideas as they are proven inaccurate or incomplete and replace them with better versions – versions which will inevitably turn out to be flawed themselves (though hopefully less so) and need to be replaced again.
So what’s my answer here? Full scale war on the streets until the last ideology left standing is the winner? Allow the founding beliefs of millions to be unceremoniously torn out from under them?
No. The Richard Dawkin’s approach to religion is a good example of how that just makes the problem more entrenched – the line in the sand is drawn and you are either with us or against us. If we are determined to take this hard-line approach then we leave ourselves with only one logical conclusion; the annihilation of the opposition and through a long, bloody and painful process – exactly the sort of thing we were trying to avoid in the first place.
So what then?
Let’s have a look at the complete version of that particular biblical quote:
Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. (Matt 7:1-2)
We can see from the full quote that this prescription is hardly as absolute as it first appears. It is not a prescription that we must not judge others, regardless of their actions, but rather the warning that the standard we hold others to is the standard we must hold against ourselves. It is a call for less tolerance and more compassion, more empathy and less hate.
Let’s have less people proclaiming they are right and more people willing to question their own beliefs. Let’s have people get over themselves, acknowledge their fear, their uncertainty, their very human ignorance and try to find out more about other ideas before they go ahead and oppose them.
Let’s see more courage and less cowardice in hiding behind words in a book, simplified arguments, selective case studies, and avoidance of any fact that does not fit your world view.
Let’s see people approach other thinking of them as a human first and foremost, and try to overcome the superficial differences that cloud the fact we agree on at least 90% of matters.
There is no debate I know of that could not benefit by all participants accepting the simple fact that, regardless how strongly we may believe in something, know something or understand something, there is an extremely good chance that we might be wrong.
It is scary, there is no doubt about that. I’m suggesting nothing less than that each of us be willing to acknowledge that everything we’ve worked towards and based our individual lives around might have been a mistake.
But you cannot avoid the choice – either you will approach life with imperfect awareness or you will approach it with perfect blindness.
Will you be a positive force in this world or a negative one?