Is an opinion ever just an opinion?

I began to seriously ponder this question after a debate I had with a friend on a political issue (I can’t remember what it was). I vividly remember this person adamantly hiding behind the “well, it’s just an opinion” retort when I questioned him over a viewpoint he had.

Society, Americans in particular, value their freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. We explicitly love the idea of the constitution protecting our right to hold various opinions, along with practicing any religion without government intervention and our right to assembly in a show of protest or support.

While I’m definitely in support of the idea of everyone being entitled to an opinion, I do find it troubling that many people seem to toss the “well, it’s just an opinion” barrier up in defense of a discussion on a wide range of issues, such as racism, sexism, tax policy and the validity of social safety nets.

While I’m as much as fire-breathing, pro-First Amendment blogger as the next one, I can’t resolve the conflict I have inside about this issue.

So I find myself pondering the question: when is an opinion just an opinion? Is an opinion ever just an opinion and, in the context of social justice causes, or a symptom of a person’s bigotry, stereotypes and subconscious hatred of a group of people?

I find myself hesitant to wholly embrace the just-an-opinion argument for various reason, namely because we don’t develop opinions in a vacuum. Opinions aren’t conjured up in a person’s mind whenever they are asked about issues. I strongly believe our opinions are greatly influenced by our life experiences, our predisposed beliefs about people or issues and our willingness to expand our horizon to develop a deeper understanding and appreciation for life’s issues and problems.

For example, I remember getting into a discussion years ago on a message board about racial stereotypes. One person proclaimed many, but not all, blacks are loud, particularly in movie theaters and other public gatherings. Of course, I argued against the blatant racial stereotype, but the person making the accusations quickly resorted to the, “Well, it’s just my opinion” argument as a valid defense for his racist stereotyping of black folks. This person also went on to defend his belief with the idea that it’s fair to make this assumption because he’s encountered hoards of loud black folks over his lifetime.

My problem with this superficial defense is two fold. First, the belief that many black folks are loud is nothing short of his inherent bias and prejudice against black people. Opinions about people and issues are based upon our conditioning and exposure to various types of people and our knowledge and experience about various issues. Our opinions about people aren’t developed in a vacuum, meaning we just don’t automatically assume all black people are loud or all GLBTQ people are promiscuous or reckless without having any exposure, experience or interactions with certain groups of people. Our opinions are also heavily influenced by those around us. As children, teenagers and young adults, our opinions are heavily based on the perceptions, biases, conditioning and experiences of the adults in our lives.

Second, hiding behind the, “Well, it’s just my opinion” defense allows a person to completely avoid any self-examination to debunk his or her’s prejudices and biases towards a group of people and misconceptions about a particular issue. In essence, this first dimensional defense allows a person to bask in his or her’s ignorance by refusing to check their bigotry and lack of knowledge at the door.

The “Well, it’s just an opinion” argument can pose as a serious deterrent to the necessary changes needed for many people, particularly the GLBTQ community, to gain equal access and protection under the law. Those opposed to equal rights and protection for the GLBTQ community often hide behind their misguided opinions, often seeped in religious dogma, as the reason for their refusal to support GLBTQ rights. Their opinions about GLBTQ folks isn’t just something they came to believe overnight. Their life experiences, teachings and conditioning has groomed them to either despise or embrace GLBTQ people and their lives.

While I support having the right to form and stick to any opinion we please, we need to understand our opinions aren’t solely developed without any connection to people, events or our upbringing or exposure. No matter how far we would like to run from and deny our biases, prejudices and misconceptions, our opinions are an accurate description of how well or how poorly we understand those who are different from us.