The case of the mistaken fundamental right

How many times have you heard the words “I’m entitled to my opinion”, just before someone launches into an uninformed, unbalanced, self-indulgent summary of a personal belief they may have? This is usually followed up by desperate attempts to justify their position, or pointless pleading as to why their statement (and they) are not racist, sexist, homophobic, a conspiracy theorist, or in some way discriminatory.

Give them a shovel and they’ll just keep digging.

What’s happening here in the age of instant, responsibility-free digital publication and rampant self-admiration is that some people are getting the basic principles of free thought and free speech mixed up – the right to a ‘belief’ and the right to an ‘opinion’ – two very different concepts which are frequently and mistakenly being combined into one universal human ‘right’.

Misunderstood and taken for granted by the deliverer, and repeatedly accepted without question by the receiver.

What’s the difference?

A belief is ingrained, personal and generally has not been explored, tested or scrutinised. You could argue it doesn’t have to be, it’s just a certain internal understanding, a feeling if you like, perhaps even reflective of how someone has been brought up or educated. Just a personal belief. Key word here? Personal, as in it should be kept to oneself. ‘Beliefs’ are the new parliamentary privilege for the masses; too often verbalised, unhelpful, sometimes harmful, but not otherwise required to be qualified. Nor are they punishable by anything other than social derision or maybe a bit of Facebook shaming.

An opinion on the other hand is something that, when stated publicly, should at least be measured and quantified against some kind of process, whether external, or at a minimum, internal. The questions that should be asked prior are; “Do I know what I’m talking about?”. “Am I being unfair?”.“Are my words hurtful?” At which point the person with the opinion must have something to back up their stance: facts, figures, or better yet, research.

As an example, I know very little about fishing, so I would never automatically assume that I had the right to a (publicly stated) opinion on it. If I thought about it, and decided that I felt a bit sorry for the fish, I’d ask a marine biologist or ichthyologist before I got up on my soap box to bleat about it, as it would still just be a personal belief I was sharing.

Why do we feel the need to state an opinion on everything?

I don’t mind hearing opinions, as long as the above has been applied to some degree and the person delivering it is open to discussion or disagreement. If they are not, and no other process has been applied, then it’s not an opinion I am suffering through, it’s a personal belief, to which yes, each of us has a fundamental right to hold, but not necessarily to broadcast.

Let’s leave that to the experts.

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