Wednesday, March 14, 2012

What it means to have "a right to your opinion"

This is a thing that happens on the Internet (and, probably, real life too -- I don't spend as much time there):

  1. A high-profile figure or sometimes just a person (we'll call them Person X) makes a comment, publicly, that someone takes offense to (it could be something they say in the real world that then makes it into print or something they write on a blog, Facebook, Twitter, etc.)
  2. The offended party (Person Y) publicly takes issue with the statement (on their blog, Twitter, etc.)
  3. A third party (Person Z) is offended in turn by Person Y's response (whether or not they agree with Person X's original sentiment), and tells them that Person X "is entitled to" or "has a right to" his or her opinion.
When this happens, it always sounds to me like Z is suggesting that X has more right to their opinion than Y (because X is more famous, perhaps?). If that's not what they mean, what do the Z's of the world mean by these statements? Everyone has a right to their opinion, sure, but no one has the right to not be criticized. 

35 comments:

  1. "no one has the right to not be criticized" is YES. i follow of lot of blogging communities (parenting blogs, style blogs) where the MO for commenting is pretty much "OMG you're so amazing," aka there is no room for dissent or criticism on most blogs. if anyone comments with anything less than a ray of sunshine, they're labeled HATERS. sure, the "haters" could just not look at the blog or site or page, but if you're putting yourself out there on the internet or as a celebrity, you have to be ready for some criticism.

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    1. Luckily my own comment-community is quick to criticize me. :)

      I'm a lover AND a hater. Sometimes I'm all sunshine, but I usually speak up when something pisses me off...

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  2. Sometimes Person Y does not merely disagree with Person X, but suggests that Person X should not have made the comment at all - should have self-censored. Person Z may be making the point that Person X should just say what he believes, and that Person Y shouldn't try to silence that viewpoint (by, for instance, shaming Person X). Whether Person Z has a point depends on how Person Y phrased his argument.

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    1. I guess it seems to me that censorship and silencing are rarely a legitimate concern in these instances -- the thing has already been said. Take Rush Limbaugh's "slut" comment -- whether or not he had a "right" to say it is kind of a moot point. He did say it. The question is whether the sentiment has any value/validity whatsoever. I do think people can say whatever they want on their own blogs or radio shows, and vocal disagreement doesn't threaten that right.

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    2. For instance:

      Person X: Firefighters are overpaid.

      Person Y: How dare you disrespect the heroes of 9/11!

      Person Z: Christ, Person Y. Person X is entitled to his opinion.

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    3. Yeah, I still don't think "X is entitled to his opinion" is an interesting response there. Person Y's response isn't interesting either of course.

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    4. Maybe this example won't do it for you either, but...

      Person X: Palestinians deserve self-determination.

      Person Y: Person X is making Jew-hating comments! He should be shunned by all non-racists!

      Person Z: No, Person X is entitled to his opinion.

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    5. Person Q: Person Y is entitled to their opinion.

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    6. Yeah, but Person Y was trying to marginalize Person X in order to stifle a viewpoint, whereas Person Z was defending the norms of open discourse. Person Q does not bear the same relationship to Person Z that Person Z bears to Person Y.

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    7. My point being, it is always the case that Person N is entitled to their opinion. There could be a Twitter bot that recognizes disagreements and auto-tweets "@PersonY @PersonX is entitled to their opinion." (Somebody create this bot please.)

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    8. I think there are almost always better ways to argue with someone though, to point out their various fallacies. Because according to your own logic, I feel like Z is trying to "silence" Y, or suggest that Y "self-censor." How are they not?

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    9. Yeah, I admit it is not the most effective way for Z to make the point. But here is the distinction between what Y is doing and what Z is doing: what Y is doing is a speech act. Y is calling for some kind of punishment of X. This would be more explicit if Y said something like, "You have slandered me and you will be hearing from my lawyer." We can all agree that this would be an effort to shut X up (and a potential 1st Amendment issue if the government actually penalizes X for his comment).

      As it happens, Y isn't making a legal threat, but it's the same idea. Y is styling himself a referee and calling X's statement out-of-bounds. This is a speech act, not an expression of Y's substantive views on the matter. Z, then, is not attacking Y, Z is trying to get people to see Y's gambit for what it is.

      One could be cynical and say that all discourse involves these games of shaming other people and trying to marginalize their viewpoints. We are always subtly trying to label each other's arguments as out-of-bounds and otherwise discredit them. But often Y is not being subtle at all.

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    10. In 99% of the cases I've seen and am referring to, Y is not calling for punishment -- Y is just responding, offering a dissenting opinion. I actually think it's more dangerous (insofar as there is any danger involved) to punish dissent than to punish spontaneous outbursts of opinion.

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  3. That's similar to the frequently-made comment that disagreeing with an opinion is a threat to the 1st amendment. It's not. Even if I say: "Your opinion is vile and you shouldn't have expressed it," there is absolutely no threat to freedom of speech in my criticism of your speech act. I can sincerely tell you should have censored yourself. That's as much my right as yours was to express your opinion in the first place. I take "You're entitled to your opinion" as a mere hedge, at best, and meaningless or disengenuous, at worst.

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    1. Agreed, and it's common enough that it should have an official name, like the Gambler's Fallacy or Appeal to Authority. Or does it already? Appeal to the False Threat to Free Speech.

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  4. I sort of agree w/ James here; you can often interpret "X is entitled to his opinion" as "in my view, X's opinion is within the range of things it is acceptable to say here." I don't think this is vacuous, as in most contexts there _are_ things you can't say, and there are rel. liberal and rel. restrictive ways of drawing that line. It doesn't seem helpful to point out that "X is entitled to their opinion" is literally vacuous/meaningless, as so are a lot of expressions that are perfectly intelligible in practice.

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  5. I'd need to see an actual example of this in context to be convinced. I can provide an example where it seems vacuous to me, if you like.

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  6. Also, in future, may I suggest that you use The Dude voice: "He's like, entitled to his opinion, man."

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    1. That I can get behind: cf. http://nickbrowne.coraider.com/2012/03/dude-abides.html

      Re my prev. point, I feel like my interp. generally works for the template you sketched in the original post. (Except cases where 1st amendment is invoked, which is just silly.) However, I am having some trouble finding examples of "entitled to their opinion" that aren't surrounded by an aura of idiocy...

      PS among the many flaws of the new word verifs, you cannot edit your comments to mention the word verif text.

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    2. Does anyone know if there's a setting where people don't have to type in a word verification? I despise those.

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    3. I just turned mine off, I think. It's in blogger settings / comments, at least if you're using the old interface.

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    4. I'm using the new interface. I'll poke around.

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  7. Yeah I found it by going back to the old interface. It should be off on my blog now.

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    1. But I really prefer the comment threading! Makes conversations so much more clear....

      Which is all to say, Blogger sucks, but I'm too lazy to migrate.

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    2. Also with my old settings you couldn't subscribe to comments, a feature I use all the time.

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  8. No no, I just mean go back into the old blogger interface to make this one change, then come back out. You don't have to go back to the old blog format. (Right?)

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    1. I think the options in the comment settings are all different -- not sure you can maintain old settings if you use the new Blogger interface.

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  9. It worked for mine. Although I can't figure out how to enable the comment threading...

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    1. In the new interface, choose the "Embedded" option.

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  10. Oh I see. I'll probably stick to the pop-ups since my comment streams don't seem to attract the involved conversations that warrant threading.

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  11. Catching up with this convo late in the game, but I tend to agree that the statement "So and so is entitled to his/her opinion" is so self-evident as to rarely warrant it being stated. I only tend to say that when I'm pressed to offer my opinion on someone else's opinion but disagree and feel the need to be diplomatic. So why bother, indeed?

    Surely much more interesting to just engage with the conversation on the assumption that everyone is entitled to their opinion?

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    1. And while I just said on your blog that I too like criticism, it is so pleasant to be agreed with now and then. Thank you Natalie!

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