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No second opinions

You may have seen this. At York University in Toronto, Professor Cameron Johnston, in the course of an introductory social sciences lecture, said that there is a difference between acceptable and unacceptable opinions in public discourse. For example, he said, you simply cannot say, “All Jews should be sterilized.” At that, a student, Sarah Grunfeld, walked out of the lecture hall and filed a complaint of anti-Semitism.

When the context was patiently explained to her, her response was “The words ... still came out of his mouth.” When it was explained to her that Professor Johnston is himself Jewish, she expressed skepticism that he is a Jew. She has received support for her preposterous accusation, though Gawker.com and the news media have made fun of her, which she thinks is unfair.

Writing at Language Log, Professor Geoffrey K. Pullum sees this wretched little episode as an example of our sanctification of opinion: “Some undergraduates today seem to think that when something is their opinion, that automatically gives them a right to say it and have it accepted respectfully.”

Not just undergraduates. In our public discourse, we see repeatedly how people seek to extend their right to hold an opinion to an imagined right of freedom from contradiction.

If you believe that all Creation was assembled in a week in October 6,015 years ago, I will never contest the sincerity of your belief or your adamantine right to hold and espouse it. But when you and those who share this opinion band together to find an imbecilic and compliant clutch of legislators—always a safe bet in the United States of Moronia—to legislate this opinion into the science curriculum of the public schools, you are stepping over the bounds.

We see this phenomenon over and over. We see candidates for high office make provable erroneous statements of fact, then refuse to back down. We see people reject empirical evidence about climate change and the place of the president’s birth and grow angry when they are challenged. In the little realm of discourse in which this blog participates, we see how warm people grow when their linguistic shibboleths are called into question.

Professor Pullum sums up the controversy that Ms. Grunfeld triggered: “This is not a funny story, and not a serious story about free speech or anti-Semitism either. This is a sad little anecdote about kneejerk hypersensitivity, intellectual immaturity, and gross irresponsibility.”

And that, even more sadly, describes a good deal of what we see every day in the world beyond the university.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:35 PM | | Comments (15)
        

Comments

I clicked to this blog in hopes of finding a piece that truly allowed others to have different opinions. But sadly, it's not. It's obvious that you think your own opinions, especially your view on climate change, should be free from contradiction. This post is completely hypocritical.

I see that KJ, like Sarah Grunfeld, has ignored an important distinction. I didn't say that you're not allowed to be skeptical about climate change. What I am saying is that you are not entitled to ignore scientific evidence for it or pretend that that evidence has no weight.

I think the fundamental problem is that everything is turned into an ideological battle. People talk about their "views" or "opinions" on scientific issues, as if that has any relevance to a discussion that should be based on facts. (Though of course facts have to be interpreted through imperfect humans.) Many people play up the ambiguity of or supposed controversy surrounding facts that they don't like. Maybe I'll start advocating for the turtle cosmology model of the universe. http://controversy.wearscience.com/design/turtle/

I agree entirely. It's turtles all the way down.

Pardon the cliché, John, but I believe Sarah's point was that the sword cuts both ways. Sarah and I are not the ones who need the lecture about ignoring scientific evidence on climate change or pretending that said evidence has no weight.

I think KJ just proved your point.


Hmm...... had no clue that one of my old alma maters, Toronto's York University, was such a lightening rod for heated controversy. Who ever claimed that Canadians were such a deferential, accommodating, non-combative, and civil lot?

Back in the mid-to-late-'70s when I graduated w/ my BA in Poli Sci (Class of 1970), the biggest 'stew' on campus was over emerging Canadian painter/ printmaker Charles Pachter's slightly cheeky painting of Queen Elizabeth II, decked out in full official, royal regimental regalia, saluting her Canadian 'Commonwealians', while mounted on a rather cooperative bull moose. Bareback, no less. HA!

Pretty heady stuff, back in the day. Talk about provincial. But i digress.

Can't help but cite the recent rash rush-to-questionable-conclusions by current GOP presidential primary candidate Michele Bachmann, who parroted to the press the purely anecdotal testimony of a majorly disgruntled political supporter offered after the recent Tea party GOP televised debate, claiming that her very young daughter received the anti-HPV vaccine, which she alleged led directly to her child's onset mental retardation.

Bachmann clearly took this complete stranger's wild claim at face value, and as the gospel truth, emphatically stating to the media that there HAD to be a definite causal connection between taking the anti-HPV shot, and the subsequent high risk of mental retardation.

Of course various highly regarded medical experts in the field of sexually transmitted disease were quick to point out the absurdity, and gross irresponsibility of such a scientifically unsubstantiated claim.

Bachmann, in the face of the immediate major push-back from the medical community, the MSM, and the wider social media in response to her shooting-from-the-hip claim re/ the ills of anti-HPV vaccine, quickly backtracked on her knee jerk statement, but basically the damage had already been done, as thousands of gullible, socially conservative critics of the anti-HPV vaccine for young teens likely swallowed Bachmann's 'poison pill', hook, line, and sinker.

Similarly, Texas GOP good-old-boy, Rick Perry's over-the-top claim that Social Security is essentially a "Ponzi scheme", reiterating a major claim from his anti-Fed mantra from his book, "Fed Up! Our Fight to Save America", proved to amount to another provocative, yet basically largely bogus, totally speculative GOP postulation.

In fact, during the heat of the recent GOP TV debates Perry's been reluctantly backtracking on his Ponzi scheme accusation like a scared polecat being hounded, and chased by a mean junkyard dog............ named Mitt. HA!

Of course the Cheneys, Rumsfelds and George Dubyas of this world never, ever backtrack, or even look back in the rear-view mirror of recent history w/ any misgivings, regrets, or apologies for their questionable deeds. Just get'er done, and American can suffer the consequences.

And the beat goes on.

ALEX

Voltaire said "I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." Unfortunately, there are those on both sides of the aisle who disagree with Voltaire.

Civil Discourse has completely vanished.


As a little addendum to my earlier post which admittedly appeared to have a pronounced anti-GOP bias, I would like to add these few thoughts which may level the playing field of discourse, to some degree.

Frankly, we could go on-and-on, ad nauseam, w/ Washington 'pols' of all ideological stripes spewing what amounts to pure off-the-cuff bunkum, but is presented to the electorate, and the media as solid, empirical fact.

High-profile politicians of both major national parties, the Dems and the GOP, have been guilty of this loosey-goosey style of partisan demagoguery, and shading the truth, for ages. (There's a euphemism for you, i.e., "shading the truth".)

And folks, it don't look like it's gonna stop any time real soon. (if I may be permitted here, to lapse into the vernacular.......... as a certain pompous governor of The Lone Star State is often want to do.........y'all.)

It appears the appetite for boiled lobster and medium-rare fillet mignon along the Washington Beltway is far more appealing than occasionally 'eating crow'.

ALEX

P.S.:----@ Marc Leavitt. Indeed, Voltaire, in my view had it right. And to some degree, I would contend that espousing our modern-day high-minded notion of 'agreeing to disagree' between individuals w/ differing viewpoints in an effort to maintain a mutually held posture of some manner of civil, moral high-ground, probably stems from the zealous ethical spirit, and moralistic intent of Voltaire's classic line that you cited earlier.

Sure beats the heck out of constantly being at lager-heads, or cross-purposes as our current crop of partisan Washington Congressional legislators appear to be.

We clearly need another Voltaire........... dare I say another revolution? HA!

I agree that Congress is full of "lager-heads." It's also often at loggerheads.

Many people appear to have dumped that idea that empirical facts even exist. They believe what they want to believe and expect everyone else to accept those beliefs as The Truth. This is perhaps the real problem in our schools. People need to be able to accept that sometimes what they think is wrong before they can learn. If you've always been told that your opinion matters, whatever it is, you have no reason to believe you might ever be wrong.

Alex: Whose back was bare, the moose's or the Queen's?


John Cowan,

Old chap, who ever would have suspected that beneath your rather professorial, authoritative on-blog-mien lurked a rather cheeky sense of humor. (Dare I say butt-cheeky sense of humor?......Guess I just did. Hmm....)

We've caught an occasional glimmer of dry wit here-and-there from your generally serious, mildly prescriptive posts, but w/ your most recent , "Whose back was bare, the moose's or the Queen's?", my suspicions of a latent sense of humor, now manifest , were confirmed.

I have to surmise that you were referring to their 'backsides' ?(Or is that just my perverse imagination kicking in?) So in the case of the moose, his derriere was definitely bare, and naturally, decidedly furry.

I can't vouch for Her Royal Highness's, but as I vaguely recall from Pachter's painting, she was wearing some fashion of kilt-like, plaid, tight skirt. Now whether she was sporting her royal 'undies' under said garment, only her official lady-in-waiting, and perhaps hubby, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh would be privy to that rather delicate information. HA!

Maybe our man Picky, who oddly has been rather incommunicado, of late, has the inside scoop on that one? HA!

With that rather clingy shirt, the Queen may have been riding sans saddle, but likely side-saddle, both legs swung to one side. The moose was totally mum on that little detail.

Ta! Ta! for now,

ALEX

P.S.: ----Trust Picky is just fine, but perhaps merely lurking, or off on some exotic cross-country junket. However, lurking on this blog is just not his usual style.

Let us know what's cookin', Picky old lad.


Tenderfoot,

"At loggerheads", indeed!

Thanks for your 'tender,' and light-hearted correction.

Mea culpa.

Guess I got hoisted on my own petard on that one? HA!

"At loggerheads" would clearly have been the correct phrase in the context of my earlier post-----meaning in disagreement, or being quarrelsome.

Yet you would have to be the first to admit that my "lager-heads" could also work, in your pointing out that "Congress is full of lager-heads". The sundry Washington Beltway watering holes can surely vouch for that. I'm sure the late 'Tip' O'neil & Co. tippled a few pints.

As a big nature buff, and avid birder, I should have been a bit more hip to the term "loggerhead", since there is a rather remarkable grayish, black and white, medium-sized bird called the Loggerhead Shrike, or Butcher Bird. This guy has the habit of skewering its dead prey, usually small rodents, or lizards, on a thorny branches, or barbed wire, to secure its victim while it devours the tasty bits. Hence the rather sanguine secondary moniker.

And of course we have the much endangered Loggerhead Sea Turtle, a magnificent ancient denison of the deep. But I digress.

Hmm..... I imagine the image of a typical just-poured lager---a frosty glass stein w/ its foamy head of airy frothiness, could have set me off course. (I hate sounding defensive when I basically blew it. HA!)

Cheers!

ALEX

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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