The last sentence in my first book, Hideous Dream, is, “You are certainly entitled to your opinion.”
It was mostly a memoir about the 1994 US invasion of Haiti, so I had no trouble really defending my own account of it, since I was there, it was about what I did there, I used notes I had taken there, and I knew pretty much what I was talking about.
The reference, however, was an ironic one, based on my experience — having been to Haiti then and having returned numerous times — of how many people were willing to offer up an opinion about Haiti when they obviously knew next to nothing about it, and could not likely point ot it on a map.
I had entered public life, as it were, subsequent to my military career. That is, I began writing, in public venues, on controversial subjects. I quickly discovered that one will be challenged publicly if one takes public positions. That was not altogether surprising. While I was in the military, I learned an appreciation for the value of timely information, organization, and attention to detail. So my first forays into the world of public polemics were related to the cases of two political prisoners: Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu-Jamal. I researched the cases of each and found — once the details of their cases were revealed — that they were indeed both political prisoners who were the victims of hostile conspiracies by the government.
But, as I said, these were controversial propositions; so I was challenged. The quality of those challenges, however, varied significantly. And I have since identified some categories of challenge that I have been exposed to since on an array of topics. These are (1) the erudite, with philospohical differences, (2) the epistemologically blind, (3) the well-read mainstream, (4) the televised impressionistic, (5) the fearfully religious, and at the bottom of the list (6) the “I’m entitled to my opinion.”
The erudite-with-philospohical-differences (1) involves things like the discussion of nationalism among well-versed Marxists (these are people who actually know something about Marx), or the work of Jessica Benjamin among radical feminists, or the significance of Garvey among Black radicals. The participants in these debates study their asses off, and often have logged in a substantial amount of time in the trenches of mass movements. I take these challenges very seriously for exactly those reasons.
The epistemologically blind (2) are challenges from people who are well-read and familiar with both pertinent facts and history, but there is an invisible interpretive lens that is shaping conclusions without the proponent of the challenge having identified that lens or its implications. An example might be someone who critiques Haitian religion as being primitive without seeing the equally mystical notions that we adhere to in this “modern” culture. They think it quaint that a Haitian peasant acquires the help of a “ti loa” in a ceremony, but they never challenge the idea that… say, “money grows.” Epistemology is the study of HOW we know what we think we know. Blinders include the idea that sexual desire is an unmediated natural “drive,” that individuals exist independently, “rational Man” fallacies, the unacknowledged fictional character of property and law…. things like that. People for whom this is the only challenge are often open-minded, and, with the exposure of these epistemological blind spots, willing to re-orient their thinking.
The well-read mainstream (3) challenge is one from people who read a lot, newspapers, “Newsweek” and “Time” and “US News and World Reports” … they watch PBS and listen to National Public Radio, et cetera. They are usually white, usually “middle-class,” often self-employed or professional, with at least Bachelors Degrees. There are many exceptions, but this is a pretty good mean-demographic. They believe they are informed in their opinions, because they believe the (meaningful) real world is American (if they are American), that everything is basically okay and just requires some tweaking from time to time, and that the range of “legitimate” opinion gathers around the “center” within the “legitimate” polarities they describe as liberal and conservative. They have barely a clue that these polarities are actually tightly held within an ideology of the dominant stratum of society, and that what is being legitimated by this notion of what is “legitimate” is existing structures of power. They are motivated by the fear of “illegitimate” or “extreme” ideas that they have internalized as alien, and they are very difficult, though not impossible, to convince otherwise.
The televised impressionistic (4) are those who believe that listening to CNN or MSNBC or Fox is adequate to their intellectual needs (or because they have very little time for anything else, because they are working two jobs and raising children), and so they gain an “impression” that Palestinians are terrorists, that there is an invasion of “diseased Mexicans” crossing the border, that there is some democratic project in Iraq, that Black hurricane victims are looters (even some Black folks got this impression), and that when someone refers to Tony Blair’s position on something this is “Great Britain’s position.” These folks often cannot find Iraq on a map, cannot even name the president and prime minister (under the last so-called elections), but they believe they know enough about Iraq to say things like, “We shouldn’t have gone there, but now that we are there, we have to stay to prevent a bloodbath.” This is a challenge that is… challenging, because the degree of ignorance combined with epistmeological indoctrination by the boob tube is a terrific obstacle. They can’t tell you the names or locations of the principle political actors there, but they can conclude what will happen in the event of a US withdrawal. We are approaching the bottom, where “entitlement to an opinion” is the sole basis of an argument, and seeing how notions like White Man’s Burden have been smuggled into our consciousness. (“But don’t you dare call me racist!” [flash eyes... make jaw quiver])
It is important to note that these categories can become mixed, with the lower forms of challenge often rising through the other categories like poisonous gas.
At this level of argument, we have long passed any significant probability that there is any recognition of the most rudimentary logical fallacies; and so they increase proportionately. CIA veteran Ray McGovern’s recent public challenge to Donald Rumsfeld included a reference to Rumsfeld’s use of the non-sequitur, at which point he was shut down by Rumsfeld’s handlers – who had nothing to fear, since 95% of tv-land hadn’t a ten-cent clue what McGovern was talking about.
Next comes religious zealotry (5), where not only are people trained in active anti-intellectualism (God said it. I believe it. That settles it… with no question that God said it in the first place and not a series of disarticulated writers using faulty translations and evolving agendas over centuries), but they also learned this world view beginning at birth, every precept pre-literate and deeply emotionally embedded, and… here’s the clincher… it reassures people that they won’t die. I cannot argue with that; so I just don’t try. On the other hand, I know many religious people who are not bigots, whose politics are progressive, and who are very decent, caring human beings, so I don’t provoke them with faulty generalizations (that’s one of those fallacies) that religion is the source of all social conflict. It is not. (The latter is a white-man form of argument… the argument from comfortable, white dudes that begins, “If only…” then goes on to explain why this one, single, unitary, linear thing describes the universe. They usually also have one single, unitary, linear solution for everything that would work like a magic wand.)
That brings me to the last one, the one that is reserved for the most obtusely mule-headed. “I’m entitled to my opinion.” This is the equivalent of the Pee Wee Herman method of argument: “I know y’are, but what am I?” At the end of their arguments, especially when anyone has employed more effective intellectual ammunition than they have, they follow up their re-statement of this entitlement with ad hominem arguments — another logical fallacy — like, “You suck,” or “You’re a feminazi,” or “You’re a tree hugger,” or “You’re a commie,” or “You’re a [insert racial epithet]-lover,” or… “You’re an idiot.”
So let’s get it out of the way, then move on. Everyone is entitled to an opinion, no matter how ridicuclous, bigoted, half-baked, second- and third- and fourth-hand, or hateful. I support them in their entitlement. I encourage them to make those opinions known.
It speaks volumes.