I am a firm believer in free speech. That’s not really a super controversial statement, but it’s true nonetheless. The right to say whatever I want to say and to believe whatever I want to believe is priceless. Without that absolute guarantee, people stop talking. And the end of that dialogue means, melodramatically speaking, the end of the world.
So, it’s safe to say that free speech is a pretty all-around good deal. Opinions for everyone!
What I’ve noticed, though, is that people like to tote out the phrase “It’s just my opinion,” as a sort of barrier against any and all criticism. As if, somehow, the very words will snake from their mouth and weave themselves into a force field that will keep others out and trap themselves in.
“I don’t think music by black people sounds that good. But that’s just my opinion!”
“Girls only look good when they’re skinny. But that’s just my opinion!”
Actually word force fields would be super cool.
So here’s my uncomfortable truth for the day. YOUR OPINIONS ARE NOT IMMUNE TO CRITICISM. Your opinions as well as my opinions can be sexist, racist, or rude. They can be misinformed. They can be wrong.
The reason I’ve been thinking about this recently is because of an interview that came out at the end of September with professor and author David Gilmour. In the interview he says, among other things, “I’m not interested in teaching books by women.”
In his follow-up/non-apology Gilmour clarifies that it’s not that he’s not interested, it’s that he “[doesn’t] love women writers enough to teach them.” Lots of funny and brilliant people have written extensively on why these statements are a problem, and I don’t have to parrot them here. What I’m interested in is how even in his apology, where presumably Gilmour was trying to not sound like a sexist jerk, he continues to insist that he just doesn’t love any female writers (with the exceptions of Virginia Woolf and Alice Munro*). That “you love what you love,” and there’s nothing to be done about it.
Here’s the thing, though–that’s not true. People change their opinions about what they love all the time. I read Pride and Prejudice for the first time in seventh grade and hated it, then fell in love with Jane Austen just three years later. I couldn’t make it through a page of William Faulkner before I studied it in class, and now I’ve read and loved two of his books. Reading literature at different times and in different contexts changes how you experience it.
But say you’ve read a huge variety of books by women in a wide range of contexts and you cannot bring yourself to consider any of them “the best.” Instead of throwing up your hands and retreating into your bubble, maybe it’s time to consider why you are only able to relate to and appreciate work that speaks to your precise experience.
This is particularly true in a world where female students are expected to relate to and understand the worldview of male authors far more than the reverse. A Farewell to Arms, Crime and Punishment, Lord of the Flies, The Catcher in the Rye are all worthwhile pieces of literature, and their presence in the classroom is clearly warranted. And yet, by disproportionately devoting analysis and attention to white men, students have less opportunity to fall in love with other perspectives in the same way.
Essentially, an opinion is not always just an opinion. A lot of baggage feeds into what we believe and into what we love.
It’s uncomfortable to force yourself outside of that box, but it’s worth your time and energy. And if you can’t—you might want to work on that force field thing. You’re going to need it.
*And Alice Munro just won a Nobel prize! Hooray!
Anna Wing is a frequent guest blogger. She is a sophomore at Penn State University, where she is studying biochemistry.