All opinions are not created equal
By WILLIAM C. GRAHAM
Are all opinions equally valuable? The jury of college students is still deliberating this one, and college-age men and women raised in a politically correct world appear disinclined to suggest that any opinion, no matter how zany, is undeserving of respect. To discredit an opinion is now seen as identical with disrespect for the holder of that opinion.
First exploring this quagmire with a group of students a few years ago in my Christian Responsibility class, I proposed to them an opinion as ridiculous as I could concoct. Our college, Caldwell in New Jersey, began life as The Caldwell College for Women. What if, I wondered aloud, I were to suggest that even with our foundations on and by strong Dominican women, we should no longer be coeducational, but should instead become a college just for men? Men, my deliberately specious reasoning went, are more educable and more suited to college-level discourse.
I expected that someone who had been paying attention all semester would assert that the women in class were clearly a match for the men, perhaps even more vocal and reasonable in their considerations of the matters at hand. I thought someone who had been studying statistics might suggest a look at my grade book from previous semesters to determine whether men or women had tended to earn higher grades.
Instead, a young woman sitting in the rear of the room burst into angry tears. I asked what about our discussion prompted her reaction. Well, she said, shaking with sobs, thats my fathers opinion.
The heartless creature! What kind of a father was he to discredit and discourage his bright and capable daughter? Before I could form any comment, she continued, ... And you are not respecting him.
Well, she was quite correct there. I didnt know the man from Adams blue ox, but did not feel inclined to share much fellow-feeling with him, much less embrace or even respect his ill-formed and mean-spirited opinion.
As deeply troubled as this father-daughter relationship apparently was, I hoped that it was an isolated case, that most other students would see and understand that not all opinions are created equal and equally deserving of respect. Some opinions are well reasoned and thoughtful, based on an examination and interpretation of data. Others are based on prejudice or incorrect data or misperceived facts. Some are just plain ornery. Surely there has to be a hierarchy of opinions perceptible to any clear-thinking individual.
I later invited another group of students in RS 201 to read Flannery OConnors short story, A Good Man is Hard to Find. In it, a grandmother erroneously directs her vacationing family down a road in rural Georgia where they have a car accident. The Misfit, an escaped criminal much feared by the grandmother, somehow is on that same desolate stretch of road, comes to the accident scene and enters briefly into dialogue with the accident victims, after which he and his companions shoot to death the entire family. Why was this annoying, though innocent, family, murdered?
It was the will of God, said Diego after I posed the question to his class. It happened. Everything happens for a reason. It was the will of God.
No one other than I seemed awe-struck by his vision or version of God and the Divine Will. I waited. No response. I disagree, I offered.
Well, thats your opinion, Diego countered. He was not upset by my opposing opinion. We all have opinions. Theyre all fine. Think what you want.
Do you think, I wondered, that there is a certain sense of irony in the story? The grandmother asserts that a good man is hard to find, and yet, in all of the vast area of the rural south, all of the thousands of miles of unpaved roads, the Misfit happens to meet this family when they take a wrong turn on an unmarked road. What are the chances of this meeting? A good man is hard to find, but it is impossible not to be found by a bad man.
I dont want to believe in a God who would will such a thing. I cant believe that the God we know could possibly will such an occurrence, I concluded.
Sensing that I might not be respecting Diegos opinion, several of his classmates spoke out in his defense. Well, thats your opinion, they said.
But I think that Diego is incorrect. Not everything that happens is Gods will.
Thats right, a young woman said, and added, Lets remember Hitler.
Hitler seemed to stop them. His opinion about the Jews was offensive. But it seemed to be the argument of the lonely fact. Just because they could isolate one opinion that should be actively rejected was hardly seen as endorsement of the idea that there may be a hierarchy of opinions, some of which are uneducated, ill-informed, offensive or unacceptable.
We discussed Paul VIs idea from Humane Vitae, that married love is creative of life, for it is not exhausted by the loving interchange of husband and wife, but also contrives to go beyond this to bring new life into being.
Bethanys hand shot up. Yes? I asked.
I disagree, she said quickly.
This young student has heard that many Catholic people in good conscience differ from Pauls teaching on artificial contraception. Thats their opinion, she thinks, and its a good opinion for her. Consequently, she disagrees with Paul. Human Vitae, therefore, is to be dismissed. Her opinion, because it is hers, is every bit as good, she asserts, as any popes. The fact that she really does not know his opinion is of little consequence. She will not be moved to admit that what he teaches, not to mention the dignity of his office, should have any more weight than her instantaneous reaction.
Jesuit Fr. Avery Dulles, in his November lecture at Fordham, reported that Paul Knitter, for instance, holds that it is disastrous for dialogue to insist on the finality and superiority of Gods revelation in Christ. Christians who wonder if all opinions in this matter are equally valuable might take a look at Knitters opinion in The Uniqueness of Jesus: A Dialogue with Paul F. Knitter, edited by Leonard Swidler and Paul Mojzes (Orbis, 189 pages, paperback).
Writing in The New York Times (March 22), Gloria Steinem wrote, There seems to be sympathy for keeping private sexual behaviors private. Perhaps we have a responsibility to make it OK for politicians to tell the truth -- providing they are respectful of no means no; yes means yes -- and still be able to enter high office, including the presidency. According to Steinem, Kathleen Willeys allegations against President Clinton are very different from the cases of Clarence Thomas and Bob Packwood. If the President made a reckless pass at someone who said no, at least he took that no for an answer, so is not guilty of sexual harassment.
Well, thats her opinion, editorialized the Times the following Tuesday: As legal analysis, that may be sound. The editors point out that feminist leaders, wrestling over legal standards, miss the danger involved: The Clinton case raises the very real possibility that if the president is seen as getting away with gross behavior, more bosses will feel free to behave abominably (March 24).
Here, an opinion is considered, refinement suggested and further debate seems to be invited. The next day, in a letter to the editor, Jeffrey Rosen, an associate law professor at Washingtons George Washington University, pointed out that Ms. Steinem is incorrect. Like President Clinton, Sen. Packwood knew how to take no for an answer: none of his employees alleged that he repeated his advances after being rebuffed, and only one complaint occurred after 1985.
Moreover, he continued, Anita Hill has never alleged that she was the victim of legally actionable harassment. Rosen concludes that it is unfortunate that instead of clarifying the harassment debate, Ms. Steinem adds to the confusion (March 25).
Two days later, A.M. Rosenthal asserts his opinion that Ms. Steinem has blinded herself politically to protect a man she sees as a champion of womens rights. For a feminist leader, that is an act of grievous intellectual self-mutilation.
In this case, we see opinion challenged, new facts and interpretations offered, people asserting not a presumed right to think or believe what they want but, instead, seeking clarity and answers.
To allow our students to think or to think ourselves that the Constitution declares that all opinions are created equal, that it is impolite to challenge error and prejudice, that every idea is a good idea is stance and an opinion that is insupportable and that cries for correction.
Do we all have the right to our opinions, no matter how ill-formed or outrageous? Or are we instead obliged to seek the truth and act on our discovery of moral rightness?
William C. Graham writes NCRs Bookshelf column. He is a priest of the Duluth, Minn., diocese and an associate professor of religious studies at Caldwell College, in Caldwell, N.J., where he directs the Caldwell Pastoral Ministry Institute.
National Catholic Reporter, October 16, 1998