Embracing Discomfort: Deconstructing the Myth of Opinion

During my semester working for a major higher education association such as NASPA, I have had the opportunity to reflect on some big picture issues that impact our field and the conversations we have both with our students and with one another. This is one of the most salient reflections I have had throughout the year.

“Everyone is entitled to their own opinion.”

This is an inherent truth. We each, as individuals, have the ability to develop and form our own opinions and express those opinions as we see fit. We engage in classroom dialogues, we provide commentary on social issues through Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of social media, and we debate and discuss differing opinions with friends and family. It is a part of our society in the United States and it is one that many are most proud of.

I, however, have recently been struggling with this idea and the impact that it has on difficult conversations around issues of power, privilege, and oppression.

“We can agree to disagree.”

“It’s just a matter of opinion.”

“If you respect my opinion, I will respect yours.”

These statements have gone from generic underlying truths that guide conversation etiquette to mechanisms used to stifle conversation at the thresholds of discomfort. When discussing issues of social justice and equity, the dialogue is so quick to turn to “well, we all are allowed to have opinions.” I have found myself silenced with this so many times this year, and I cannot help but reflect on what it does to perpetuate systems of oppression and silence marginalized opinions.

I recognize that this conversation goes both ways. I know that I, when triggered, have silenced other’s opinions out of frustration and anger. When we are advocating for issues that have personally harmed us and/or those in our communities, it can be difficult to allow space for opinions that reflect that pain. So I share these reflections without judging or labelling an entire school of thought as “bad” or “good,” but rather to critically comment on an issue that has recently been on my mind quite a bit.

There are a few reasons why I have difficulty with this being the way we view uncomfortable conversations around difficult topics.

It invalidates the lives impacted by systems of oppression.

One day recently, I was having a conversation around gender identity with a group of peers in class. We were discussing inequality among genders and I explained the idea of there being a spectrum of genders, rather than a binary. After a short conversation, one of my peers said, “I don’t believe in this idea that there are more than two genders."

It is one thing to have an opinion about how we address difference among people. It is quite another thing to suggest that our opinions can determine the existence of a person, experience, or group of people. Regardless of whether one was raised to believe that there are more than two genders, it is a fact that transgender, genderqueer, gender non-conforming, etc. individuals exist and live full lives in our community and society. It is this exact erasure mindset that perpetuates the idea that we can decide whether or not they exist.

This also goes for the existence of systems such as racism, sexism, islamophobia, etc. If we are stuck in the argument about whether or not racism exists, we have lost the true nature of the conversation. How we address the issue of racism varies across experiences, ideas, and opinions and is indeed up for interpretation. We are stuck in a dangerous place, however, if the argument becomes whether or not racism exists in our society when fact and personal experiences have proven that it does.

It perpetuates the dominant narrative.

When we discuss the idea that we are all entitled to our own opinions, it is extremely important to recognize how these opinions are developed. Those who grew up in the United States received relatively similar educations. We all learned about the “heroic” actions of our founding fathers, we heard countless stories of white men as scientists, authors, innovators, entrepreneurs, etc., and we received a white washed history of black history. And there are so, so many things that we did not learn.

It is important to recognize that when there is an opinion that suggests that racism does  not need to be addressed, that immigrants are “illegal” and lazy and should therefore be deported, or that people need to simply work harder to pull themselves out of poverty, it is backed up by years and years of education from a system that serves to maintain power for the people who create and thrive from that system. It is one thing to have an opinion to be backed by pure fact and reason, but we must be aware of whether that “fact” comes from a skewed view of history that serves a very specific purpose for very specific people.

It suggests that arguing from lived experience and emotion is less valid  than arguing objectively.

I refer to one of my role models in relation to this idea. In a recent blog post, Angela Hattery (Director of Women & Gender Studies, George Mason University) reflects on arguments around the recent decision made by George Mason University (my undergraduate institution) to rename the law school after the late justice Antonin Scalia. She analyzed the way in which two men with varying degrees of privilege defended the decision using strategic and scholarly language while simultaneously suggesting that “Scalia’s decisions and positions can be interpreted as nothing more than a disagreement.”

However, people of color, LGBTQ individuals, and women cannot remove Scalia’s opinions from the direct impact that they had on stifling their social movements and restricting their freedoms. If one disagrees with a policy, phrase, decision, etc. that has been put in place but is not directly impacted by it, it is easy to disagree without advocating for change. In addition, it is easy to “play devil’s advocate” and offer varying perspectives and opinions when you are not directly harmed by these opinions.

We privilege objectivity in this society. As Sian Ferguson states in a recent blog post, “often, we think arguments and discussions are better when they’re unemotional, unbiased, and unattached from personal perspectives – exactly as we were taught.” So, we suggest that it is more accurate to argue from an unattached standpoint than from personal experience and emotion. That it is less valid or respectable to argue from a place of pain, frustration, anxiety because you have been hurt by the very society you are challenging than it is to a defend a society that has benefited you in more ways than not. Privilege is being able to argue objectively and it is being “entitled to your own opinion” when the dominant opinion and your own are aligned.

It takes away the opportunity for someone to be challenged in their opinion.

Often, this idea that “we are all entitled to our own opinions” comes up at the end of a difficult conversation around power, privilege, oppression, and other topics of social justice. It is used as a peace treaty at the end of the conversation to leave the dialogue where it ended and suggest there is no need for further discussion or action. However, if we use this scapegoat to excuse ourselves from conversations that challenge us, we are not likely to progress in this society, regardless of the direction. There is no purpose for dialogue or debate if we suggest that everyone can maintain their own opinions at all times. This accounts for all discussions and opinions. If we enter a conversation with this caveat in place, we distort the possibility for adapting our worldview in response to the presentation of new evidence.

As I prepare to enter my graduate program in the fall, I hope to continue these reflections to understand how I can better engage in and facilitate difficult dialogue about these topics. My time at NASPA has allowed me to see how complex these topics can be and has provided me with a framework for critically reflecting on them. I seek to encourage critical thought about how we develop our opinions and who they exist to serve. If we are unwilling to adapt our understanding of the world, it is less of a “matter of opinion” as it is a matter of maintaining the status quo.

Taylor Sprague is currently a senior at George Mason University and is preparing to start a graduate program in Higher Education Administration at North Carolina State University in the fall. She has been a part of the NASPA Undergraduate Fellows Program (NUFP) for about two years and spent her final undergraduate semester serving as the NUFP Intern in NASPA’s DC Headquarters with the member engagement team.