As I’m sure you’re aware by now, “From the Shadows” is a prelude to a rant. I would like to rant about a pet peeve of mine in the Pagan community, online and in person, and that is this: when you state something as a fact or an absolute, it is NOT “just your opinion!”
This catchphrase is typically used in the community as a way of avoiding the consequences of one’s statements. Someone makes a statement, and when another person takes issue with that statement, the person who made the statement tries to duck the debate or the hurt feelings that result by telling us that this is “just their opinion.” Some examples of these absolutist statements that I have seen in the past include:
“Polytheism is theism. So if you don’t believe in literal gods, you’re doing it wrong.”
“Belief in literal gods is stupid and irrational.”
“People who don’t believe in literal gods are not really faithful (Pagan/Polytheist/whatever.)”
“Wiccans are gender-essentialist.”
“Wiccans (or Wiccanates) are fluffy.” (Said to me by a store owner who hosted me for my book tour. Yes, seriously.)
“Traditional Witches are more authentic.”
“Old Pagans are stuffy and hidebound.”
“Young Pagans are lazy and have no real idea of direction.”
“Patriarchy is the result of the violence of men.”
“Feminists hate men.”
“You’re worshiping [insert deity name here] wrong because historically . . .”
“You can’t practice [insert Pagan religion here] because your ancestors had a different practice.”
Without getting into the many reasons why all of these statements are factually wrong, and why many of them are actually (thin) covers for sexism, racism, ageism, and other forms of prejudice, this is not the way the English language works. When you state that something is, or is not, something else, that is a statement of fact. A statement of fact is not an opinion.
An opinion is a belief about which the person who offers it is not entirely sure. In general, they believe this idea or state of affairs to be true, but they are aware that their belief may not be correct, may be based in misinformation or a lack of information, or may be somewhat askew. If you know that you’re right, that’s not an opinion!
An opinion is prefaced with, “I think,” “I believe,” “to my understanding,” or maybe even, “in my opinion.” It is prefaced by a qualifier that gives room for variation or disagreement. Let’s revisit the above statements in ways that change them from statements of fact into actual opinions:
“Polytheism is theism. So in my understanding of polytheism, a belief in literal gods is essential.”
“I find it difficult to accept the existence of literal gods. I think that gods should be understood as metaphors or archetypes.”
“I don’t really understand Pagans who don’t believe in literal gods. To me, that belief seems like the foundation of polytheist (Pagan/whatever) faith.”
“Wicca strikes me as a gender-essentialist religion because of its cosmology.” Or even, “I seem to meet a lot of gender-essentialist Wiccans.”
“From what I’ve seen of Wicca (Wiccanate Paganism) it seems simplistic.”
“I prefer traditional witchcraft to Wicca because it feels more authentic to me.”
“A lot of the Pagan elders I’ve met seem stuffy and hidebound.”
“A lot of the younger Pagans I’ve met seem to me like they’re scattered, unfocused, and not prepared to do the necessary work.”“Patriarchy encourages men to be violent.” (Bonus points if you add something to the effect of “but not all of them are.”)
“Some feminists seem like they’re more interested in hating men than supporting women.”
“Historically there’s no evidence that [insert deity name here] was worshiped that way, and I prefer historical accuracy in my practice.”
“I believe that people should practice the Paganism of their ancestors if they choose to practice a Pagan path.”
If one is not prepared to qualify one’s statements in this way (in other words, if one believes one does know something to be true) then one should be prepared to defend that statement. One should accept that others may find the statement objectionable and that they may be inclined to argue. And if said person is prepared to accept that, I think that’s fine. I don’t have to agree with them and I may choose to challenge them on it.
But, to make a statement like this and then retreat behind, “But that’s just my opinion!” is cowardice. It takes advantage of us and our Pagan ethic of trying to be inclusive. We Pagans try to accept the validity of a variety of viewpoints; and so when someone says that “this is just their opinion,” we immediately check ourselves at the door. We ask ourselves if we’re coming across more aggressively than we intend to, or if we are getting angrier than we ought to, and we chastise ourselves for our intolerance. But the person who makes such a statement and then retreats behind “opinion” is fully aware of that, and is trying to defang us unfairly. The person who makes such a statement is the one who is displaying intolerance, and we have a right to object. Not only that, but said person is refusing to allow those who may have been maligned or misrepresented by such statements the right to defend themselves.
“It’s just my opinion” is meant to be a qualifier based in humility. It is meant as a way to invite discourse, and to allow room for other opinions. It’s meant to suggest that discussion is an option and that your belief might change if you are exposed to contrary evidence. It is not meant to be used as a shield to hide behind after you have chosen to lob a bombastic statement because you think your superior wisdom is going to batter down the walls of the opposing argument like a catapult stone.
When we’re discussing faith, by definition a lot of what we’re talking about is unknowable and it’s reasonable to assume that others might have come to different conclusions. Certainly we don’t appreciate it when fundamentalist Christians try to tell us that they know how we’re damned to hell unless we accept Jesus as our personal Lord and Saviour; but that’s “just their opinion.” Why would any of us think that speaking in this way ourselves is likely to get any better results?
Freedom of speech is about the relationship between government and citizens. Freedom of speech is the right to speak freely without persecution from authority. It is not the right to say whatever we want, to whomever we want, without consequence. It does not trump the right to safety of person or any other human right (which is why hate speech is not okay) and it does not mean that other people don’t have the right to freely state their objections and arguments to “your opinion.”
So, please qualify your statements so that they are not absolutes; or have the courage of your convictions, and be prepared to defend your statements with intelligent argument. If you can’t do either, please don’t subject us to “your opinion.”
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