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[personal profile] flewellyn
I was browsing through the Onion's archives, looking for an old article that I wanted to reread, when I came across this little story:

Study: 38 Percent Of People Not Actually Entitled To Their Opinion

I won't quote it all here, mostly for reasons of copyright and fair use; the critical quote is this: "On topics from evolution to the environment to gay marriage to immigration reform, we found that many of the opinions expressed were so off-base and ill-informed that they actually hurt society by being voiced".

Funny? Sure it is. But it's the kind of thing you laugh at uncomfortably, because it's a truth many of us don't want to admit.

Now, as a progressive, liberal type, I do believe in the principle that everyone should have the right to express their informed, considered opinions. But I think the key words there are "informed" and "considered". Too many people today (it might even be as large as 38%, I have no idea) think that they can just spout off on whatever, without actually knowing anything about it. Not incidentally, many of them are Bush voters, but I'm certain we've all seen them on all sides of the political arena.

And in the press, of course. $DEITY help us, the press, especially the cable news media and the Washington press corps, are FULL of these sorts of people, who feel no compunction about substituting their whims for facts, or polling themselves and their pundit friends and calling that the will of the people. I think that's the part that frightens me the most about this age, not that there are so many ignorant people out there, but that the ignorant and vapid are in charge.

We're faced with a system in which the news media, charged with the most important task in a democratic republic, finding out the truth about the world, has absolutely no interest in doing that job. They would rather manufacture stories than seek them out, rather opine from their mountaintop than actually figure out what's really important to the rest of the country or the world.

How did this happen? Well, others have written more cogently, and at great length, about how the Republican party and its corporate backers have spent the last 30 years taking over the national media and consolidating it into a sanitized machine for expressing their will rather than the truth; I'm not going to repeat all that here, I wouldn't do it any justice. But I think, to some extent, we progressives allowed this to happen, by not fighting it when we saw it.

We adopted, for the best of reasons and out of the purest intentions, the principle that everyone is entitled to an opinion, and everyone's entitled to a voice, and if someone says something which is not just objectionable, but factually incorrect, we should challenge what they say, but not their right to say it. If someone habitually speaks falsely, or just spouts outright gibberish, we should refute it, but not tell them to shut up or refuse to listen to them. It's a great principle, and in many cases it's workable. But it only works as long as the forum in which we do this discussion and refutation is not under hostile control.

That's not the case anymore. For various reasons, we didn't recognize the neoconservative movement for what it was, didn't realize that they were not just presenting alternative ideas but trying to rewrite the national discourse to suit themselves. We didn't understand that they had no interest in a genuine meeting of the minds, coming to some kind of consensus, but sought our destruction, and that any concessions they made were not compromise, but temporary retreat. In the face of the wholesale takeover of the media by regressive and reactionary forces, the government's near-total takeover by the far right, and the near-total dismantling of the progressive institutions and protections we once spent over a century to build, we must reexamine the idea that everyone is entitled to their opinion.

Certainly, the Onion is being satirical, but I think they're expressing a truth that progressives need to own, and need to present to the world: a person is not entitled to an uninformed, ignorant opinion. In order to be worth listening to, that person needs to demonstrate that he or she actually knows something about the subject, and has considered the issue sufficiently. And if we're confronted with people who are not just misguided, or misinformed, but unwilling to learn and hellbent on spreading harmful memes, we must be willing to do more than simply refute what they say. We must challenge their qualifications to say it, and refuse to allow them to dominate the discourse.

I'm not advocating government censorship here; what I call for is both safer and more effective. What we must do is socially censor these fools, by making it clear that they are fools, and that we won't suffer them gladly. We have to be willing to say, not just "I disagree", but "You are wrong, you are speaking falsely". We need not tolerate intolerance, and we need not grapple logically with illogic. Sometimes, we need to do the only thing these people deserve: we need to say "Shut up and sit down."

Date: 2008-09-21 10:53 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] wechsler.livejournal.com
I'd estimate 83% as being closer to the figure than 38%.

Date: 2008-09-21 02:06 pm (UTC)
ext_35267: (Eyes Wide Open)
From: [identity profile] wlotus.livejournal.com
I agree with you...except I have no faith society is able to determine what is "uninformed" or "ignorant". Too often people use those words for opinions they would rather not hear, not truly uninformed or ignorant opinions. So I don't think leaving it in the hands of society will make things any better. I think things will just get worse and worse.

Date: 2008-09-21 05:22 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] beautifldreamr7.livejournal.com
I completely agree with this. You expressed, far more eloquently, exactly what I was going to type.

Date: 2008-09-21 06:09 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] flewellyn.livejournal.com
I'm not leaving it in anybody's hands. I'm saying we as in those of us who DO know better. Like you and me.

Date: 2008-09-21 06:40 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] roseneko.livejournal.com
But then, that begs the question - objectively speaking, how do we know who DOES know better? To pull an example, Bill O'Reilly famously uses the "shut up and sit down" tactic to express what he believes to be the absolute truth, despite the fact that he is, 99% of the time, absolutely WRONG. So if he's telling people to shut up and you're telling people to shut up, who gets to decide who's right? The rest of society, of course. And I'm kind of with [livejournal.com profile] wlotus, here - leaving things in the hands of society isn't going to make them any better.

Date: 2008-09-21 06:44 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] flewellyn.livejournal.com
Those of us who have actual facts on our side, are right.

Date: 2008-09-21 07:03 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] roseneko.livejournal.com
Facts are slippery things. They can be used, oftentimes creatively, to imply or support any number of things.

The most dangerous and damaging myths aren't the ones that are made from whole cloth. They're the ones that are mostly fabricated, but contain a grain of truth that people can point to and say "See? My worldview is right!" And interpreting facts to support one's worldview is something everyone does, which makes refutation tricky - most people are simply going to believe what they want to believe, anyway, and they will happily rally behind a "fact" that supports them and defend it to the death.

There's a reason that news outlets don't report "just the facts, ma'am" anymore. Facts don't sell. Analysis? Argument? Conflict? Totally sells. And they don't have to think for themselves when they have talking-head pundits spoon-feeding them information.

I hate to say it, but I'm starting to feel like the only means of fighting fire is with fire. Perhaps we need to show the rest of the world how "liberal media" is REALLY done. :)

Date: 2008-09-21 07:09 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] flewellyn.livejournal.com
I hate to say it, but I'm starting to feel like the only means of fighting fire is with fire.

That's what I'm talking about.

Date: 2008-09-21 09:00 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] roseneko.livejournal.com
Not exactly. You're advocating refuting distortions with facts. I'm (theoretically) advocating refuting distortions with equally wild (and therefore attractive) distortions on the other side. Since the "refuting distortions with facts" thing obviously hasn't worked.

Problem is, I can tell you from experience that that doesn't work either. Really, it's a no-win situation.

Date: 2008-09-22 07:57 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] flewellyn.livejournal.com
I'm advocating refuting distortions and then saying "You're an idiot, sit down" to the distorter.

Date: 2008-09-23 04:07 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mrz80.livejournal.com
Those of us who have actual facts on our side, are right.

Facts are simple and facts are straight
Facts are lazy and facts are late
Facts all come with points of view
Facts don't do what I want them to
(with thanks to David Byrne)

Date: 2008-09-21 10:15 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] pixxelpuss.livejournal.com
I agree with most of what you're saying here, although I think it stems from the culture of rugged individualism, and the pervasiveness of post-modernism.

The thing is that sometimes things are just factually true, and opinions are totally irrelevant. People have confused "everyone has got a right to an opinion" with "Every opinion is equally valid", and that's just dumb. On issues that are totally subjective, say beauty or morality, I think it's acceptable for everyone to have their own opinion. But when it comes to other issues, an uninformed opinion is worthless. This is why preachers and ideologues have no place on scientific advisory boards.

I think the problem is severely exacerbated by the total lack of critical thinking skills and the lack of science literacy in the general populace. That might be the appropriate entry point for confronting this problem- ensuring a better public education system that involves teaching critical thinking and emphasizes the difference between science, pseudo-science, and things which are not objectively determinable at all.

Date: 2008-09-22 07:56 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] flewellyn.livejournal.com
Yeah, our educational system definitely needs work. Not just more resources, but a different model of teaching. I don't have all the details worked out, but I have some ideas on the subject.

Date: 2008-09-22 04:16 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] naamah-darling.livejournal.com
Oh, god, you are so right about this. The legal right to do speak your mind doesn't morally excuse ignorance.

Date: 2008-09-24 06:44 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] nimbrethil.livejournal.com
I got into an argument last week over one of my fellows in that class I took over her pissy opinion about people in school. I was attacking her notion that people who don't perform in school are mostly just lazy, and someone else popped in to tell me "Well, everyone has their own opinion," as if to shut me up.

That's what I find trouble, the sheer numbers of people who think that freedom of speech, being entitled to one's opinion, very much does mean that opinions should not be challenged, that attacking one's opinion is fundamentally the same thing as insisting that they can't express it.

OH yeah!

Date: 2008-11-15 05:59 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Hi Avi. I'm just catching up on your blog and this is right on. You are still a kindred spirit. xx Kjersten

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