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IF YOU WANT ME TO TREAT YOUR IDEAS WITH MORE RESPECT, GET SOME BETTER IDEAS*
I got involved in an interesting conversation the other day among a bunch of online writer friends, and have been thinking about it on and off all week. I'm putting it all down here because it's an important conversation for me and I don't want it lost on FB. One friend posted about someone (a friend) who had been spouting lots of rather repulsive opinions and my friend, who was only trying to relay what had happened and how he had felt about it, ended by saying that the guy was entitled to his dumb opinions. I didn't know it was one of my buttons until it was pushed, but my immediate reaction was rather visceral and I responded (a bit hastily):

I’m sorry but why exactly is he entitled to his opinions? Why is there always this sense that opinions are inviolate? I don’t agree at all with that and if someone has rational arguments or information that should change my mind, I don’t think I or anyone else should be entitled to hold on to opinions that are bigoted, racist, or just plain ignorant. You have far more human kindness than I do.

Another writer friend reacted to my comment, asking for more information on my thought process, and asking why I was so offended, and I'm going to post his question/post because I found it interesting and thought-provoking and it made me think hard about my own reaction and MY own opinions about opinions:

"I want to know more about what "entitled" means to you. There must be a semantic issue going on with the word entitled. Because a person being entitled to their own thoughts makes good sense to me. Clearly, as a human being, he has his own thoughts and opinions. You can't change that. You can't force someone to think other than what they think. You can present evidence but they will think what they will think. So as a free human, yes, he is entitled to his own thoughts. Entitled meaning, he has a fundamental right to have thoughts. Whatever batshit crazy stuff he wants to think about. I guess that's what I think of as entitled. He has a right, natural or legal, to his own brain and thoughts. I'm wondering what you are thinking entitled entails? It sounds like there is a moral angle for you. Or an angle that means if I agree someone is entitled to their thoughts, somehow I'm endorsing the validity of their views. I don't think entitled means that his views are as good as other views. I don't think entitled means that he gets to have views and in addition be considered by others to be a good person. If you have certain views, I think you are a BAD person. But I will allow you have the human right to be a bad person if you want to. (If you're bad enough you go to jail but that's still your choice if you want to make it) I don't think entitled means that I should be forced to include him in a discussion. I don't think it means he gets to publish a public school textbook and force our children to read it. So what does entitled mean to you? What does it convey that you object to?"

And I had to stop and really think: what DOES "entitled" mean to me? And why am I objecting to the use of the word? I wrote back that I was indeed reacting a bit to the awful ideas, but that I also feel like people feel entitled to all kinds of things these days and that entitlement itself is something that people have come to take for granted, and it seems to me a cop-out much of the time for not having to think beyond whatever you learned as a child or young adult. Of course I agree that everyone can think for themselves, whatever they like and they can have opinions but why are they entitled to them? They shouldn't be an entitlement...they should be a living, changing, growing, getting BETTER thing, shouldn't they? I am not entitled to my opinions, whether I have them or not. Whether you agree with mine or not, or whether I agree with yours or not. They just are. If a person chooses to be bad and we allow it (which we often don't) then he isn't entitled to that behavior, right? He just chooses it. And if he learns a better way of behaving, then his opinion may change, and that's presumably a good thing. But saying that people are entitled to their opinions is tacitly agreeing that they are okay on some level no matter what they are. It's like mentally washing your hands of the issue or saying that it's not your problem or, I don't know...I'm not sure how to articulate what I think about this any better right now. I'm still working it out, like everyone else. If we say that everyone is entitled to their opinions, then why should we bother to try to change them or worry about what they might lead to? I know it goes both ways, but still.

The first friend responded: "Semantics. I think "entitled," the more I focus, is absolutely the wrong word in this situation. No one is entitled to think anything because they can already think it. You're entitled if you've done something, or ARE something, that makes it transactional or at least in some sense (i.e., cogito, ergo sum). I buy a movie ticket, I'm entitled to watch the movie. I think you're right to question that word. Entitlement is irrelevant. Like I'm entitled to my arm."

His last sentence was sarcastic, but it also made me think. You are not entitled to your arm. You are lucky to have it. Or them. You are lucky to have them both. Now that you have them, you are entitled to use them, maybe. Maybe not. I suppose if you choose to use your arm and the hand on the end of it to wield a gun to shoot innocent people with, I'd have to argue that you are NOT entitled to use it. At least not like that, and therein lies the problem...where do you draw the line when it comes to entitlement?

Friend number two responded to my reply with a thoughtful answer: "Entitlement includes, for you at least, an element of privilege. I get that. And often when people say someone is entitled to their beliefs it can be rather lazy. "Oh well, he's entitled so I'm off the hook for any obligation to confront." And I'm with you on individual rights of entitlement getting pushed hard these days. I guess I would say that of course people are entitled to a lot of things. Meaning they CAN do them and think them. And they WILL reap the consequences. And I OUGHT to be willing to confront people when appropriate and challenge them. And then, depending on their reaction, make my own choices about how much I invest in the relationship."

Tyrion, in last week's episode of Game of Thrones, commented that "Thoughts aren't treason" when he and another advisor were SPEAKING treason in regards to their queen. And I guess you could argue the same for opinions. You can have whatever opinion or thoughts you like, but when you choose to put them out there, you have to understand that you are not entitled to them just because they're yours. And of course, the only way to LEARN of new ideas, to educate yourself and others, IS to put your thoughts and opinions out there. How else will you know that there are people out there who agree with you or people who have completely different ideas about the world, ones that you might do well to listen to and think about? Ones that might make you change your mind? Ones that might make you look at life differently. How else will you know whether your opinions are valid or justified or right in any way? Heh.

I asked the other writers in the group for their two cents and got some more well-thought-out replies:

"I find the conversation provocative in the sense that it forces me to look at the concept of privilege and the right to one's opinions from a perspective that requires thought, not just reaction. I think the "right" to an opinion carries with it a responsibility to base the opinion on thought, not just an emotional reaction. That, of course, requires a person to share the basis of the opinion. But whether a person fulfills the responsibility to base opinion on more than raw emotion can't be measured if he refuses, or fails to, explain the basis. Even if the basis is fully explained, it isn't necessarily based on measurable facts. And we may disagree completely with the premise upon which the opinion is based. In my experience, when people express opinions I find objectionable (e.g., opinions I think are based on bias or prejudice), I tend to respond with emotion more than intellect. So, I can think the entire matter of opinions through and through, but when it comes to reacting to them, my intellectual assessment goes out the window."

"I’ve spent the majority of my life thinking my opinion was fact. It’s only in the past 5+ years that I realized and accepted it was only my opinion." and a quote from Daniel Patrick Moynihahn: "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts."

"Entitled", like "privilege", has become a pejorative, I think, because it's used to label a set of selfish behaviors, a sort of branding of the word. Dog owners, for instance, who feel "entitled" to let their dogs run off-leash in a public space. It's contextual. The behavior may be perfectly fine, for instance, on a farm or someplace where there aren't children to disfigure, wildlife to harass or excrement to dodge on a narrow urban sidewalk.
"Entitlement" as used in the Constitution of Bill or Rights is as free of negative spin as it could get. Perhaps the word itself should be given an executive pardon, with the terms of its parole being that it's always accompanied by a modifier: selfish, anti-social, creative, deserved, well-earned. As far as what began this discussion, I'm thinking that the friend is "entitled" to have his opinions, and perhaps to state his opinions if they won't cause proximate harm, but he's not "entitled" to have them be accepted as fact or impervious to rebuttal or derision.


Friend number one summed up his side by saying, "In my mind, saying someone is "entitled to an opinion" is just another way of saying, "That's what you think, and that's all it's worth. Entitled" may mean different things, shaded by our experience and usage, but the key point is that while you're "entitled" (or allowed, or really, no one can stop you so you're empowered, I guess, which may be better) to your own opinions, that doesn't mean they have to be taken seriously. I think that's the point we're dancing around."

When I looked up "entitlement" to see if maybe I was incorrect in my word definition knowledge, the dictionary actually underscored some of the things I was feeling about using the word in regards to opinions. Entitled carries a connotation of spoiled. Feeling entitled usually means you feel that you have a right to, or deserve the thing in question. You have a CLAIM, a PRIVILEGE, you have a RIGHT. THAT is what I was objecting to most, I think. Anyway, it was a fascinating discussion and I was very glad to hear some other well-educated, thoughtful responses that helped to clarify my own thinking and opinion about this subject.

While I was looking for a title for this post, I found this quote by Harlan Ellison, and couldn't resist: "You are not entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to your informed opinion. No one is entitled to be ignorant." and then I found this one by Mark Twain, and I'll stop there because apparently all the great minds have said everything first and much better than I can: "The rule is perfect: in all matters of opinion our adversaries are insane." Haha!

Writer friends and reader friends and friends who call you out and make you think and lead you into good and interesting conversation are the best kinds of friends.

*John Scalzi
 thoughtful
mood: thoughtful
music: Lenka—Trouble is a Friend


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