Voltaire said, “I might disagree with your opinion, but I am willing to give my life for your right to express it.” I have a slight disagreement with Voltaire. I am willing to give my life for your right to hold an opinion if it is based in relevant expertise but even then, I do not agree that you have a right or an obligation to express it.
We have many opinions. In fact, we express our opinions on a variety of subjects every day just by the choices we make: the car we drive, the clothes we wear, the food we eat. These, and many others of our opinions have been formed by our life experiences, world views, and often, our privileges.
There are various levels of opinions – the most legitimate being those grounded in science and expertise. Then there are those that are based on our politics and ideas of what others should do and finally there are those that include our personal experiences, likes and dislikes. One’s subjective beliefs are more difficult to defend. The saying “everyone is entitled to their opinion” only means that we can think whatever we like but our opinion is not more deserving of respect than anyone else’s and we are under no obligation to express it. And yet, people do. Opinions are voiced every day in letters to the editor, as comments online, and in other public fora. Often these opinions are trotted out like facts and are garnished with condescension, sarcasm, and cynicism.
Many opinions are not facts; rather they are judgments and assessments and are masquerading as passive-aggressive advice. Opinions can be wrong and ill-conceived and that they are widely held and shared does not make them valid.
The quality of public and personal engagement would be elevated if we considered the following when our opinions are burning to be shared: Do I have the information and actual expertise to form an opinion? Why do I believe my opinion ought to be shared? Am I sharing it with the right people? Have they asked for my opinion? Will the sharing of or my delivery of my opinion diminish other people’s willingness or opportunity to communicate their opinions?
It is important that our privilege and fundamentalist beliefs don’t give us the false idea that our opinions are more significant than anyone else’s. Listen to opinions that differ from your own – especially those based in expertise. Leave room for others to influence discussions. There is wisdom in knowing what you don’t know. Superiority is illusory.