Tuesday, November 11, 2003

“In your opinion” they say in reply.

Yeah, yeah. I often hear this. Usually they follow some diatrabe or other of mine, the implications of which may be uncomfortable for the listener. But I’m sick of people hiding behind this phrase; of using it as some sort of protective blanket for their own worldview: “Everybody’s entitled to their opinion” they say. Well, actually: no they’re not.

I imagine there’s a few raised eyebrows as this. Let me explain.

Of course, everybody is entitled to an opinion on matters of opinion. But not everything is. Lets pick an example: Creationism. (I’m sorry that I keep coming back to this topic but (a) I have no sympathy or respect for these people; and (b) they so often make for perfect examples of idiocy. Fuck ‘em.) It’s simply not a matter of opinion: there’s mountains of evidence from all sorts of fields – biology, geology, physics, chemistry, anthropology, whatever – that there is not a shread of truth to the Creationist vision. As Richard Dawkins once put it: “Anybody who believes the world is only 6,000 years old is either ignorant, stupid, insane or wicked".

So: Creationism is not a matter of opinion. It’s a lie. Yet somehow it’s taboo to say that; instead we live under a great Liberal Lie of our own: that we’re all entitled to our opinion. (It’s so taboo that the Creationist lobby have succeeded in getting Creationism taught alongside Evolution in the Science classroom. It literally couldn’t be further from Science. There are many reasons for not wanting to vote for the present government at the next election. For me, allowing this to happen – allowing belief and dogma into the Science classroon when instead we should be treating it as a cancer on our society – is amongst the most significant.)

Maybe this is another example of Wittgenstein’s linguistic puzzles (see the entry of 04/11 for more): we sometimes use opinion when we mean fact. But surely it goes further: some people seem able to continue to hold such ‘opinions’ despite seeing and comprehending the evidence to the contrary. How?

(A small digression: Socrates made himself a little unpopular in Ancient Athens by continually questioning people about their opinions and assumptions. By probing and only drawing conclusions through reasoning he was able to come up with contradictions in thinking. Pointing out, therefore, that the assumptions must be wrong, he ruffled many feathers and ended up been sentenced to death. This approach to thinking – to draw conclusions from assumptions through reasoning and concluding that the assumptions are wrong if contradictions or nonsense is reached – is termed Socratic Thinking. Seems common sense to me, yet so many people either can’t or are unwilling to think this way.)

I think I’ve picked an easy example, since Creationism is bunked. But even in day-to-day conversation people persist in taking recourse in the Liberal Lie. Obviously, one is entitled to express an opinion but if arguments and evidence are presented that challenge that then it’s simply not good enough to say “Well, I still think...”: No you don’t; you don’t think because if you were thinking then... well, you get the picture.

Another example. I remember, about a year ago, a friend that they thought a 50/50 sex (and yes: sex is the right word here language fans; gender is a grammatical term) split in the Houses of Parliment desirable. I disagreed and said why: because men and women are different and you may not find that as higher percentage of women wish to become MPs as men (or vice versa); what is important is that equal opportunity is available to both sexes. Me being me, this came across quite forcefully but the message, I think, still clear. “In your opinion” came the reply (in, I might add, a slightly sanctimonious I’ve-told-you-about-you-and-your-opinions-before tone). But no, that’s not good enough: I’ve said what I think and I’ve said why. Unless you can offer a riposte then why should I (or anybody) take your opinion seriously? It’s not actually an opinion, is it? It’s a belief. You can’t just hide like this.

Ok: I realise I’m probably coming over quite... aggressive here. I should add then that I consider this questioning to be just as important – in fact, probably more so – with regard to your own thoughts. It seems (I can’t know; I’m not in their brains, fortuanately) that many people persist in lying to themselves (especially the relig... oh, you know that line) about all sorts of aspects of life. If you see a contradiction or an hypocracy in your own thinking then, c’mon, set about it, challenge yourself: how do we expect to have secure minds if we keep hiding from truths? We’re even stupid enough to assure ourselves that nobody else can see our insecurities when they can.

I guess that’s the key: do you think there are truths out there? Objective, cast-iron truths? I do, and it doesn’t really matter if I don’t find them, just that I pursue them. And if there are real truths out there then don’t expect me – or anybody else – to show your thoughts much respect if all you can do to justify them is say “Well, that’s my opinion”.

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