When Are You Allowed to Have An Opinion?

Social media has been a battlefield since the murder of George Floyd. One of the things I keep reading is that white people should keep their opinions to themselves. There is no way for them to understand what life is like for people of color, their opinions would therefore lack validity and should not be discussed. I’m trying to paraphrase as best I can. This image, found on Facebook, does a pretty good job of conveying the message:

I love the idea of different people coming together. But I don’t think that there are any rational ideas that I just can’t understand. There are emotions that I can’t understand. I’ve never been through many different kinds of trauma. But ideas are universal. You just need logic and evidence.

It seems like there is a subtext here. The subtext is “I am not entitled to an opinion, but I support yours.” That’s what worries me about this part of the discourse. Everyone is entitled to an opinion about our politics, including opinions about police brutality. Their opinions shouldn’t be shut down because of the color of their skin, obviously. The answer to society’s problems isn’t censorship. No idea is invalid; it’s true or false, useful or useless. No one should be silenced. Everyone has a right to speak. A view isn’t right or wrong just because of who is saying it. Truth doesn’t know a skin color. These seem like basic things that some are forgetting lately.

Flip it around?

Prosecutors have a lot of expertise on the criminal justice system. With the exception of other people working in the courtroom, they have more than virtually anyone else. Imagine a prosecutor speaking to a protester and saying, “You don’t know what you’re talking about. I do.” The protester responds, “I have a right to my own opinion.” Whose side should we be on? Even though I’m a prosecutor, I would be on the protester’s side here. After all, with enough facts, the protester and the prosecutor should be able to reason together. The prosecutor cannot say, “You will never understand but you must stand with me.” It’s wrong and offensive.

Notes

More people than just protesters think this way. Philosopher Patrick Stokes described the expression as problematic because it is often used to defend factually indefensible positions or to “[imply] an equal right to be heard on a matter in which only one of the two parties has the relevant expertise”. I think he’s wrong. Although it’s interesting to ask what the relevant expertise is when discussing police brutality.

The expression “check your privilege” seems to be another well-intentioned but misguided way to discuss race.

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