by Martin Odoni

It rarely matters how blood-curdling, childish, useless or offensive the opinions that a fellow human being (or thereabouts) wishes to express, I will always defend their right to say it. I might draw the line at aggravated exhortations to violence – there is such a thing as solicitation after all and it does cause a fair bit of needless trouble – but for the most part, if you have something to say, you should damn well say it, and no one should be allowed to stop you. And if they try and stop you, the standard response of, “I’m entitled to my opinion” is completely reasonable, fair and, as best I can tell, true.

But one thing I notice occasionally, with the ‘easy-access-to-debate’ that the Internet has given us, is that this response is being used a lot, not as a response to attempts at suppression, but as a response to response. Purely as a hypothetical, imagine someone on some discussion forum about, say, the history of warfare, makes the following assertion; –

USERNAME 1: I believe that no one died as a result of World War II. In fact, the war brought loads of people to life. The population of the world today is far bigger than it was in the mid-30’s, so that proves it!

This doubtless causes a few of the other users of the forum to raise their eyebrows, and so someone answers; –

USERNAME 2: That’s ridiculous. We’re not sure how many died in WWII, but we know it must have been scores of millions – the Japanese alone killed something like twenty million people. Hell, my own great-Grandfather died in the Blitz in 1940! So did his best mate! The population started growing again after the war ended, and growth continued to accelerate. That’s why the population is so much bigger today.

To which USERNAME 1, clearly affronted, replies; –

USERNAME 1: Don’t be offensive! Don’t call me ridiculous just because I don’t agree with you, I’m entitled to my opinion! Go away!

And of course he is entitled to his opinion. But I do sometimes wonder what people really mean when they say that.

Now I must reiterate that the above is purely a hypothetical, but at the same time, I have seen (generally rather less glaring) examples of this sort of exchange. What I mean is, someone makes an unsupported and disputable declaration on a forum on the internet, maybe one that has clearly not been researched, maybe one that depends on a very doubtful rule-of-logic, maybe just an outright lie. And when someone else takes issue with what they are saying, the original poster will simply retort, “I’m entitled to my opinion!” and will probably say little else, as though that’s the end of the discussion. It’s as though they are saying, “You think one thing, I think another, let’s just agree to differ”, before the discussion has even got under way.

Part of my problem with this is that it defeats the object of having a discussion forum in the first place. Such a forum is not there purely for certain people to make arch-declarations that must never be commented on, except with sycophantic words of praise and agreement. But there are also more insidious implications.

One of them is the unspoken contention that USERNAME 2 is in some way suggesting that USERNAME 1 is not entitled to his opinion. As though simply by disagreeing with it, USERNAME 2 is somehow arguing that USERNAME 1 shouldn’t have been allowed to say it. Such an idea was never implied. USERNAME 2 merely said, for very obvious reasons, that the idea was ridiculous as it flew in the face of so many glaring facts. (Note that USERNAME 1 accuses USERNAME 2 of calling him ridiculous, which again he did not, another increasingly frequent term of denial.)

The implication there is that someone, by disputing his words, is in some way disputing his right to articulate them. Someone is oppressing him by neither agreeing with him, nor keeping quiet about what he has said.

When used in the context it frequently is these days, the phrase, “I’m entitled to my opinion!” has become almost the new trigger of Godwin’s Law. That Law used to state that the longer a discussion continues on the internet, the greater the chances of someone mentioning the Nazis, usually as an insulting comparison to the person they are arguing with. Now it seems the chances of someone saying they are entitled to their opinion are what will rise. But the meaning is fundamentally the same here, because of the implication of oppression; trying to deprive someone of their right to express an opinion is, itself, reminiscent of Nazi Germany. In other words, “I’m entitled to my opinion” has mutated into a subtle ad hominem retort.

Another insidious implication is the idea that facts are no more immutable than opinions. Quite the reverse in fact. Yes, many ideas that we consider to be facts are often subject to revision as our understanding evolves. But when that happens, it means we didn’t have the facts to begin with. But there are many facts we do have that are absolutely beyond dispute. Gravity pulls other objects towards the centre of the object that is projecting it. Water freezes into ice as it gets colder. It evaporates into steam as it gets hot. In an atmosphere, two objects striking each other will generate a sound. And so on. That people died in World War II, and as a direct result of that conflict, is such a fact. It is immutable.

Not to USERNAME 1. As far as he’s concerned, that fact is subject to revision, and furthermore, when anyone tries to argue with him, he makes clear that it is his opinion that cannot be subject to change. He is entitled to it, and anyone who tries to present him with better information is oppressing that right. So it seems that merely having better information is an act of oppression, and that having the facts on your side is not good enough. USERNAME 1 has opinion on his side, and that is what will never change.

The irony in all this is that when people misuse the phrase in this way, they are actually denying themselves that right, because they are not particularly au fait with what an opinion means, at least not an honest one. An opinion is not a decision as such, although choice certainly plays a part, but it is a conclusion drawn by assessing all the facts available to the beholder, and making a judgement of them to the best of his or her ability. Whether it is right or wrong is dependent partly on what proportion of the facts the beholder has access to. But what is quite clear in the case of USERNAME 1 is that this is not what he is doing. He has been presented with facts that better explain the growth in the world’s population than his own argument, and that also point to examples of people who definitely died in the war. And yet USERNAME 1 just deflects these facts, blatantly discounts them, simply answering back that he is entitled to his opinion. But he is not forming an opinion at all, because he is refusing to accommodate some of the information available to him. He is therefore not assessing all the facts available to the best of his ability. So what he arrives at is not his opinion, but merely what he wishes to be true. Deep down he knows it is not.

He is depriving himself of his right to an opinion, and what he should really be saying is, “I’m entitled to my prejudices, and if you keep introducing all these confounded facts into my thinking, you’re going to shatter them, so shut up!” Prejudice and opinion are not really the same thing, and as I have demonstrated here, in a sense they are mutually exclusive.

My reasons for discussing this is that I was recently studying a thread on a football forum that examined the Hillsborough Disaster of 1989 in Sheffield (the twenty-second anniversary of which was just a couple of weeks ago, at the time of writing), and a contention by a radio host in the USA that the Disaster was caused by six-to-eight thousand Liverpool fans showing up for the game without tickets. The radio host, an expatriate Londoner called Steven Cohen, has never cited any supporting evidence for this allegation, but still maintains it is true.

Given the ticket allocation the Liverpool fans had that day for the Leppings Lane terrace at Hillsborough – where the Disaster happened – was ten thousand one hundred (and yes, the tickets had sold out), and given that a subsequent study by the Health & Safety Executive concluded that by far the most likely number of fans in the terrace at the time of the Disaster was nine thousand seven hundred and thirty-four, not only is Cohen’s allegation unsupported, it is nigh-on impossible. There is just no way that thousands of fans were there without tickets, barring thousands of fans who did have tickets mysteriously deciding not to go to the game after all – a scenario that is deeply implausible, and does not really tally with records of turnstile-use on the day from the stadium’s admissions system.

Many people commenting on that forum thread however, firmly agreed with Cohen’s claims, and when others argued otherwise and pointed to what the established facts tell us, see if you can guess what a number of Cohen’s apologists chose to say in response. You guessed it. “He’s entitled to his opinion.”

Well yes of course he is. But when he makes claims like that, which are not only based on zero evidence but are in complete contradiction of the established facts, (facts that had been brought to his attention many times before) he is not expressing an opinion. He is simply lying. For it to be his opinion, it has to be something he genuinely believes, it cannot be knowingly untrue. For someone to hold an opinion they don’t believe in is a contradiction in terms. For him to cling to ideas in the face of facts that preclude their possibility, he is not concerned with expressing his opinion, but only with supporting his prejudices.

If he wants to say such things, let him do so, but when he harks on about freedom-of-speech, he needs to remember it’s a two-way street. Everybody else has freedom-of-speech too, meaning they are allowed to disagree with him, and just as loudly. And when people can so easily expose how his statements simply do not fit the facts (and expose how he has long been aware of the true facts), if that means he is shown to be either a liar or an imbecile, well that’s one of the prices of freedom-of-speech. Any freedom has a responsibility attached to it.

And yes, that point can be made to Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter and a thousand others.

When you have something to say, say it. But if it’s not something genuine, there will always be a chance that someone else will expose it as such. If that happens to you, the responsibility is solely your own, and no empty aphorisms about being entitled to your opinion will save you from that.