Lawrence Uebel

One of the silliest conversational tools in the English language is the “I’m entitled to my opinion” defense. These days, it functions as little more than a shield for ignorance, close-mindedness and plain old laziness. Most people know how weak an excuse it is-including the ones using it. But we still hear it with eerie frequency. Even more surprising, few people challenge it. Someone stating that they’re “entitled to their opinion” is on par with declaring a religious belief: arguing with it feels strange and intolerant, and it’s usually viewed that way by most people.

Devoting any real thought to it, though, one has little difficulty figuring out why it’s so successfully employed. One of democracy’s key values is tolerance. We’re taught from childhood that even if people’s opinions are markedly different from our own, we ought to respect them and their ideas. That notion is based on a reasonable belief: that two rational, intelligent and informed people can come to different conclusions based on the same facts. The problem isn’t with that idea, but the complementary one-that everyone is rational, intelligent and informed. It’s obvious that not everyone is, but in a democratic society, where equality ranks right up there with tolerance, it isn’t kosher to admit it. Furthermore, most people realize that it’s becoming harder and harder to convince anyone that their ideas are wrong. We treat our ideas like children: we cannot accept any fault in them without admitting some fault in ourselves. Why bother continuing an argument when you’ll only look intolerant and fail to convince the opposition?

So that’s settled. But why is it so widely used? Most people will tell you that we simply have a lot of stupid, dogmatic and lazy people here, and, lacking anything better, they’re forced to rely on such weak defenses. That could be true, but it hardly gets at the cause. Usually that explanation is supposed to be enough in itself; no one asks why so many people are stupid or uninterested. It’s generally assumed that they could easily change themselves if they wanted to. But such an explanation is really only a lazy cop-out, often a mark of the very intellectual laziness it criticizes.

There is a natural tension between democracy and progress that is rarely acknowledged but is becoming more apparent each day. Democracy-and by extension, American society-demands that its citizens be informed, educated and interested in a number of fields, from finance to science to international politics. Meanwhile, progress adds daily to the volume of knowledge in those fields, making it more difficult to be informed, educated and interested. Knowledge has increased in volume rapidly, while the human capacity to absorb that knowledge has basically remained static. There are two obvious options for the average person. One is to opt out of the game completely and spend your time doing something else. The other is specialization, or studying one field so thoroughly that you at least have adequate information in that area.

As much as pedants and idealists might hate to admit it, opting out makes a strange kind of sense. If you take 10 hours to read the packaging and warranties on your new toaster, you’re never going to get around to dinner. And besides, that stuff is so boring. Wouldn’t you rather get straight to the eating? Much the same thing is happening with opinions. Rather than put in the long, tedious work required to develop good ones, people are finding it much more tempting to jump straight to the good stuff, the arguing and the façade of being informed. It seems pretty natural to opt for the easy way out, especially when the alternative-specialization-requires long hours of work for little reward: that is, only being able to competently argue on a few select subjects. To be fair, it’s hard to criticize anyone for doing that. I do it myself, often completely by accident. But the pedants have a point-opting out en masse will be deadly to our society. Perhaps even more dangerous, those who opt out still face the societal expectation that they have opinions. Our society basically demands that people at least appear to be informed and educated. If someone opts out of the illusion and admits how little they know, he or she can expect to be looked down upon by all of the people still pretending. The conversational problem that comes from this-people arguing opinions that they really have no backing for-is far less dangerous than the political one-that people vote based on those weak opinions-though the latter is really only an extension of the former. We now have a good deal of people that vote because they’re supposed to, not because they have any real idea what they’re voting for. It doesn’t take a great deal of perception to see the danger in that.

But specialization, while probably better-at least you know something-is hardly a cure. For one, it can lead to a fairly narrow world view. We’ve already seen the damage that some businessmen have done to education in this country: using cost-benefit analysis, which makes sense in their field, they lack the ability to measure students in terms of intangibles-such as actual education-and have broken them down into a series of readily-measured test scores. Second, people arguing about common social problems are forced to deal with them from radically different perspectives. Without a common set of facts or prescriptions, it becomes hard to make any progress on social problems. So specialization, while contributing to individual knowledge, can actually serve to drive people apart.

It’s hard to think of a way to solve the problem. We obviously shouldn’t stop progressing. The only thing that comes to mind is the idea of a stronger base education, with useful classes that students really learn from instead of just get through. For instance, I have no idea why economics and finance aren’t required and more extensively taught parts of a basic high school education. Luckily, some educators are apparently starting to realize this, with basic finance courses becoming more common-though it’s still mostly taught for personal benefit rather than as a social tool. Still, a strong, common educational base seems like little more than a partial solution. It’s strange to think: progress, usually viewed as the crown jewel of democracy-and more often, of capitalism-may be the very thing that causes democratic, capitalistic societies to stagnate and wither.

Lawrence UebelThe Miami