Where we are
We are so mixed up that we think truth has to be "democratic," somehow. Nobody really knows what "the facts" are, not even the scientists (because even they say they don't), and so "everybody has a right to his own opinion."
This apparently innocuous statement is the pus of the intellectual infection that is killing our age. It needs addressing right at the outset, because it is not only the symptom of a disease, but of a disease like an addiction, a disease that resists calling itself a disease, which thinks of itself as health, and which for that reason is proof against any attempt to cure it or even diagnose it.
The first thing to note about "everyone has a right to his own opinion" is that as a rights claim, it is completely meaningless. To claim a right to something makes no sense unless it is in principle possible to violate it. But how could I prevent you from having an opinion? I can give you evidence, but if you refuse to accept it because you want to hold your opinion, I can't stop you. I can't even know you've kept your opinion unless you tell me. I can torture you and make you say you've given up your opinion, but that doesn't take it away from you.
True, I may be able to prevent you from expressing your opinion, but not from having it. But the "right" that is claimed here is not merely the right to express opinions; it is deeper simply than "free speech." What people want seems to be to be allowed to hold any opinion they please and have that opinion "respected"; they become very angry when a person presumes to say, "You're wrong." It's okay to say "I disagree with you; I hold the exact opposite to be true"; what is a "violation of the right" is to say, "The fact is that the opposite of what you hold is true; what you think is simply wrong."
Now if a person doesn't just look at you smugly and say, "That's your opinion, of course," he becomes angry and replies, "Who are you to tell me I'm wrong? I'm not trying to change your opinion; but I have a perfect right to my own opinion, too!" That is what people are driving at when they say that "everyone has a right to his own opinion." It amounts to saying "Nobody may express himself in such a way that he is 'stating the facts,' which would make false any opposing view. This is not to respect other people and their right to hold as true what they hold."
But notice a couple of things here. The first thing that's implied in either "That's your opinion, of course" or "Who are you to tell me I'm wrong?" is "You're wrong if you think your opinion is any better than mine." But why could this be said? Only if in fact all opinions are on an equal footing.
So this view implies as a fact, not an opinion, the opinion that all opinions are equal; this opinion is the Orwellian opinion that is more equal than its opposite.
Secondly, "Who are you" implies that authority is the only grounds for saying that any opinion is erroneous; factual evidence (independent of the person) has nothing to do with it. That is "Who are you to tell me I'm wrong?" is very different from "What are the facts you know that would indicate that I'm wrong?" The latter statement would imply a willingness to change the opinion once the evidence is brought forward; but "Who are you?" rejects this; the person who asks this question is not interested in the grounds the other person has for saying that he's wrong, because we all know that no one can really know what the facts really are.
So the second "fact" that is behind, "Who are you to tell me I'm wrong?" is that opinions are not "really" based on facts, but only depend on the person who holds them.
A third point, of course, is the Jeffersonian dogma that "all men are created equal." That is, no single person has any authority to pronounce on "what is true," not even, any more, the scientists; we see this with those who demand that the Pope "change his mind" about Christian dogma and morals, because he's "out of touch with the consensus."(1)
But of course, who says that all men--pardon, human beings--are equal, so that nobody's view is any better than anybody else's? Who says that it's a fact that the best we can do is reach "consensus" on opinions, and that the majority opinion should in fact prevail?
You can see that all these views suppose that it's a fact that no one can know what the facts really are. That is, this "fact" is a hidden premise behind, "everyone has a right to his own opinion," and it simply follows from this that to presume to say that someone is flat-out wrong is (a) flat-out wrong and (b) disrespectful of the other person.
This means there's something fishy somewhere. You can't hold this view without basing it on its opposite. Of course, the reason the premise (that it's a fact that no one can know the facts) is hidden is that nobody in his right mind is going to propose it explicitly as something he knows for a fact.
But this is not just a silly position or even an error. It is, as I said, a disease; because when a person says, "Who are you to say I'm wrong? I'm not trying to change your opinion; but I have a perfect right to my own opinion, too," what he is also saying is, "Don't try to give me evidence; my mind is made up."
On the grounds of "respect for the person" he refuses to learn; and--here is the insidious part--on the grounds of being "open-minded" and "respecting other people" and "letting everybody have his own opinion," he has actually closed his mind because he doesn't want anyone interfering with his own view of things.
And this closed-minded "open-mindedness" which will let anybody say anything but will learn from no one is impossible (at least in its extreme form--which is all too common) to break through, because even if you point out that the view contradicts itself, you simply get in reply, "Well, that's your opinion, and I'm comfortable with mine."
The intellectual disease of the present describes itself in moral terms as "open-mindedness" and "respect for everyone's opinion"; and if you don't have it, you are not merely mistaken, but some kind of a sinner; you don't "respect people."
This is another way the disease resists any attempt to cure or diagnose it; it has dressed itself as virtue, and those who attempt to assail it are attacking persons and their rights, not presenting evidence(2) . The attitude of the medieval Church toward heresy was nothing in comparison to the attitude the present age has toward those who do not go along with "everyone has a right to his own opinion."
But this "open-mindedness" that is supposed to be so virtuous is not "open-mindedness" to the facts, but to other people; it is the kind of "open-mindedness" that lets everybody talk, but listens only to "where you are coming from," and pays no attention to what you are saying.
And it has terrible repercussions. We wonder why our educational system is a disaster and we can't compete with other societies any more. It isn't because we're not trying to teach; it's because we don't allow ourselves to teach. We want to "make Johnny able to think, not just fill his head with facts," because in fact we think there aren't any facts.
Even in the sciences we hear, "But chemistry (or physics, or biology) is changing so fast that by the time they graduate, every 'fact' we've taught them will be obsolete; you can't teach them 'facts' any more. You have to teach them how to do science, not 'facts.'" Besides, if you teach "facts," then you stifle their "creativity," and everybody knows that Einstein was a poor student because the teachers were busy trying to "fill his head with facts" and he was trying to think. We don't want to stifle Einsteins do we? If you force "facts" into kids heads, you don't--here's the buzz word--respect their minds.
So we teach "methods"; and our educators themselves don't learn "facts" to teach, but "methods of teaching--what? Teaching 'methods of discovery'," and our students wander about in a contentless void--and we wonder why the Asians do so much better (the Europeans are fast succumbing to the disease).
They do so much better because they learn facts.
And the facts and how they're learned give you the methods, as well as some hope that the enterprise means something. And the facts don't "become obsolete." They form the basis of further development and refinement, even when the refinement involves a contradiction of the naive sense in which the original discovery was understood.
But with the attitude prevalent in our schools, why would a kid go into science, if he was constantly bombarded with the impression that he wasn't learning about the way things really work, and was just learning a complicated and tricky way of how to learn--nothing?
Kids in the early grades like science and math, they tell me; but they're quickly turned off. By the incompetence of the teachers? I don't think so. By the disease of the age: that it's a fact that there aren't really any facts. We're killing people's minds.
And by the time they get to college, they've been so carefully taught that there's nothing to learn, that all they want to do is "discuss," and "be exposed to other views." But this is intellectual pornography, this exposure; because they don't want to learn from ways of thinking that are alien to their own view; they want just to look at them like intellectual voyeurs, and maybe pick out what they can "be comfortable with," irrespective of any connection it may have with the way the world actually is. They've been trained so well that the last thing they are willing to do is examine their own opinions to find out whether they're defective and should be abandoned. "Everyone has a right to their own opinion." (Even grammar is a matter of opinion, after all, and who are you to say that "their" in the preceding sentence is "incorrect"? It may be incorrect in the way you speak. So, for example, out of "respect for their Blackness" Black kids have their Black dialect reinforced, with disastrous results when anyone wants to hire them. You see how pervasive the infection is?)Next
1. This "consensus" view of truth has even poisoned professionals, who ought to know better. Theologians like Charles Curran "dissent" from the Pope with confidence, because the "consensus" of Theologians (who are experts) is that, for instance, contraception is okay--as if the fact that a majority holds a view made it correct. Granted, there's a problem in finding out what the truth is, and consensus among experts can be a strong indication of where the truth lies; but after all, the world wasn't flat when the consensus of the experts thought it was; or to take another example dear to people's hearts, when Galileo was said to have muttered, "But it moves anyway," he was right, and the "consensus" (of Theologians, interestingly) was wrong.
2. Believe me, this happens. I have had students in my classes quit the course after leaving me nasty notes saying that because I would not "let them hold their own views" even while they "listened to mine" they were going to report me to the dean (and a couple of them actually did, recently).