The Importance of Challenging Opinions

“We live in an age of rampant subjectivity, in which people think they have a natural right to believe whatever they want, irrespective of evidence, knowledge, or quality of reasoning… People often say and believe just what they want to say and believe, whatever feels good, strokes their ego, or is commonly accepted.”

While this might sound like a contemporary concern or complaint, the quote above is from 1996, before social media and even before the world wide web as we know it today.

The quote came from Richard Paul, who at the time was the Director of the Center for Critical Thinking at Sonoma State University. His concern then, and a fair one now, is the trend in both social media and even in formal academic settings (K-12 and higher education) that one’s opinion is valid and, in the extreme, protected from challenge, simply because someone expressed it.

This “rampant subjectivity” is dangerous in learning contexts and it’s dangerous for society broadly speaking. It is dangerous because it implies that no opinion is more objectively valid or empirically reasoned than another. It implies that there is no relationship between evidence, facts, and plausibility on the one hand and veracity on the other. See a very interesting and related article about the collision between trying to support a robust intellectual environment on the one hand while “protecting” students from emotionally difficult topics on the other hand in this New Yorker article.

What happens when we accept opinions or beliefs as valid simply because they exist?

For students, we do them a huge disservice. In accepting rampant subjectivity, we implicitly or even explicitly teach them that there is no value in developing objective, evidence-based support for their assertions AND, in so doing, we imply that every other competing opinion, no matter how specious or implausible, is equally valid to their own–that we live in a free for all, no holds barred world, bereft of intellectual rigor, where the loudest (and often most extreme) voice wins.

More unsettling is the broader impact on society of a widely held trend in public discourse that says emotional resonance or political convenience is more important than evidence and facts. And at least as bad, there is a strange, growing corollary that challenging the veracity of an assertion is somehow unacceptable because doing so would offend or upset the opinion holder!

What we get is a reality in which either we face no challenge to our assertions, regardless of their veracity, or we get “flamed” by anonymous “trolls,” who, with equal intellectual bankruptcy, attack for the sake of attack. At its worst, as a society we then accept law and policy that are ultimately indefensible (Japanese internment? Foreign military invasions? Jim Crow? Blanket collection of all phone calls by our government?) and, at best, we accept sloppy, unsubstantiated or politically/ideologically motivated claims as valid simply because they end up on our Facebook feed.

And, importantly, it is possible to challenge opinions without personally attacking the person who holds them. I’ve done so as a teacher and a business manager–and I’ve been assertively challenged without being personally attacked. In fact, if we want at least minimal quality and integrity in our public discourse, it is not only possible, it is imperative.

Yes, the hostility we often find in discourse today is real, but it doesn’t mean we must reflexively protect ourselves from any criticism of what we say. We must defend one another from hostility and that is a very different commitment.

In short, there is a broad, functional area between giving folks a free pass on one hand and attacking them on the other. I wish we all spent more time in that spot.

 

“Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

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