“Everyone is entitled to an opinion.” This is a point of view defended by many Americans, often with the reminder that “It’s a free country!” Few mindlessly parroted adages could be more obviously stupid than this one. Perhaps some of us do need to be reminded that it’s a free country, but this idea of entitlement presents a number of serious problems. It seems to claim that all opinions are of equal value. They are not. Another related problem: it’s an approach that uses an extremely devalued idea of what constitutes an opinion.
Plato told us, “An opinion is a judgment based on facts.” Today our idea about what constitutes an opinion seems to have grown much fuzzier than Plato’s view. Today, we think of an opinion as a value judgment on anything. But it’s more than that. An opinion is stronger than a mere impression but less strong than positive knowledge. It is usually based on evidence of some kind, as are most conclusions. Though an opinion is thought out (or it should be), it is open to dispute because the evidence, the specific supporting details, may or may not be logical or the meaning of the support may be open to interpretation. An opinion is not a clearly proved matter. Some opinions are better than others.
To be convincing, opinion should be based on factual evidence, and a person expressing an opinion should be able to support that opinion with fact, good reasons, and sound logic. Without facts, an opinion isn’t very convincing. We also make decisions based on our perceptions of the credibility of the source. Suppose a school group is touring the local nuclear power plant. They happen to be in the control room when alarms begin to sound. One of the junior boys is about to press a flashing red button when a man at the control panel shouts, “No!” Who would you guess is the expert? The 12-year old boy who likes to change the oil in your car may not be the best ‘expert’ to ask whether your brakes need to be fixed. Your next-door neighbor’s opinion on what to do about your bad knee is not going to be as informed as your doctor’s opinion. Clearly, there are limits on who is ‘entitled’ to an opinion.
What? Limits on Free Speech? Of course. Limits must be placed on things that have the potential to be dangerous. There must be limits because speech has the power to lead others into harm’s way. Oliver Wendell Holmes did a famous analysis of the issue when he argued no one has the right to shout “Fire!” in a crowded movie theater when there is no fire. Such a statement is almost sure to cause injury to innocent people, and the person who says such a thing is rightly subject to arrest for putting people in danger under false pretenses.
Anyone claiming to be entitled to an opinion needs to be watched carefully because they probably don’t know as much as they think they do. Good opinions are supported with verifiable facts, even though the opinion being put forward may be only one of a number of possible interpretations of those facts. And the differing interpretations may well be based on differing value judgments. Begin your analysis of an opinion by checking if any facts have been offered in support and if you can verify them. Then look for value statements to see if they are built on logical, ethical priorities. At that point, you may be looking at an opinion worth your time. And if you keep these points in mind, people will want to make time to hear your opinion, too..
“Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts.”
—Daniel Patrick Moynihan, former US Senator (1927-2003)