Opinions, dogmatism and a need for discussion

Emily O’Loughlin – emolou@uni.edu

Suppose there exists a community where some general opinion is well established and unopposed. A group of people who hold a particular opinion that deviates from the general opinion emerges within the community.

The community believes that the emerging group’s opinion is inferior and openly expresses that belief. The group struggles to convince the community that it has the right to express its opinion.

When a group of people, such as this community, becomes so set in their opinions that they are no longer willing to accept that other people may hold other opinions, they fall into the trap of dogmatism. Dogmatism, as defined by Merriam-Webster dictionary, is “positiveness in assertion of opinion especially when unwarranted or arrogant.”

The obstinacy of opinion that comes with dogmatism leads people to believe that their opinion is the only opinion, and really the only truth. This is a danger of dogmatism – it impedes the ability to consider other opinions clearly and affects whether or not individuals or groups are allowed to express their opinions.

Under dogmatic influence, people begin to forget the difference between arguing that people should be allowed to express an opinion and advocating that particular opinion. A community does not have to agree with an opinion to allow its expression, yet there are times when a community silences dissenting opinions. These are times when a dissenter is targeted and pressured to conform, pressured into silence.

The philosopher J.S. Mill remarks in his book “On Liberty” that to silence an opinion is evil because “…it is robbing the human race…” This applies in large part to those who do not agree with the opinion being silenced, as he elaborates, “If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose … the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth…”

Fortunately, people have developed another manner in which to handle the opinions of dissenters. A community can establish a forum to accommodate the expression of different opinions and for discussion of those opinions.

Take the community from earlier. They could acknowledge that the group has the right to express its opinion and establish a forum. During the time the group works to establish itself, everyone in the community is encouraged to evaluate their opinions, to reflect on why those opinions are held and possibly to share their opinions.

This does not mean that the open discussion of opinions will last. If the group is established and exists within the greater community, both may in time become as dogmatic as the community was at the beginning. The group will forget the reason behind their opinions and the struggle they once faced.

Mill wrote that, in such a situation, “…not only the grounds of the opinion are forgotten in the absence of discussion, but too often the meaning of the opinion itself. …Instead of a vivid conception and a living belief, there remain only a few phrases retained by rote…”

Once a forum for discussion is established in a community, it should not be neglected, nor should it be attacked. A variety of opinions may exist within a given community. Even if the members of the community do not agree with each other, they can benefit each other by questioning assumptions and providing a way for opinions to thrive as living beliefs.

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