It’s a bad habit reading comments on online news articles but it’s one I can’t always stop myself from doing. On the negative side it often leads to despair about humanity. On the positive side though it can work as a positive provocation for sociological considerations. In this case it is a provocation for thinking in particular about knowledge/epistemology, which is a main focus of my PhD research. In particular, concerning the knowledge/epistemology of technoscience but the same questions can be relevant in all areas.
I’m not sure if it’s true that some people feel freer to voice opinion online, especially if it’s anonymous, but it’s obvious that it’s easier to see a whole lot of different opinions clashing in one place online.
I have noted a common trend of these ‘debates’ that happen online often involve the defensive claim from a participant that ‘well, I’m entitled to my opinion’. There is also the tactic used that if their opponents don’t ‘respect their opinion’ this is evidence that said opponents are not playing the game fairly and therefore anything they say is worthless, or something along those lines.
It’s been interesting that in the interviews I’ve done so far, my participants have generally stated things like ‘everyone’s opinions should be respected’, although this was sometimes modified as depending on what people are basing their opinions on (i.e. vague ideas or ‘facts’?).
If someone has no direct experience and has taken no, or very little, time to read up widely on a topic, should they still get to have their opinion respected—even by people who do have direct/lived experience or studied a topic in depth?
Perhaps it’s that when it comes to social topics, people assume their right to opinion does come from direct lived experience. People feel it’s well within their right as someone who has a gender-sex, sexuality, family, children, or whatever, that they can have an opinion, and this opinion should be respected, even about people who have a different gender-sex, sexuality, family, way of raising children or whatever than them. Even when they have no experience or particular knowledge of the specific contexts.
It’s a messy area. What counts as knowledge? Who gets to be more respected for having particular kinds of knowledge? When is an opinion not worth any respect whatsoever? In the particular context of education, it’s worth considering how a teacher responds to students’ opinions. When should they respect an opinion? Should they not respect certain opinions? After all, to not respect a student’s opinion is not necessarily to disrespect them? A particularly contentious example might be a student who expresses their opinion in a classroom that there’s no such thing as human-induced climate change. Whether it’s a science class or an English class or a history class, how should the teacher react? Obviously it becomes much more difficult with issues that are still widely debated about as opposed to areas that are broadly accepted as ‘factually’ settled. I don’t particularly have any answers to this but I do believe it’s necessary to consider such things in relation to my research.