Whether you know it or not, you can have your own thoughts and opinions. You’re permitted to have wrong thoughts, ideas, and opinions and you’re entitled to have correct ones. You can also disagree with other people and think their ideas, thoughts, and yes, behaviors are wrong and immoral. This is the beautiful thing about the mind; it’s yours and you’re responsible for what you put into it, how you process those inputs, and how it directs your behaviors. Now, the caveat about having your own thoughts is that when they’re translated into audible statements and visible behaviors they do so in a world of other minds, bodies, emotions, and social situations. Therefore, so that we may all live with some level of civility society also has the right to temper what you say and do for the common good. Through rational discourse, some of our rights to things like free speech and personal liberties must be tempered so we can all function in a diverse culture but never at the expense of total tyranny in regard to how one thinks, feels, and expresses oneself.
You always have the right to think and develop your mind in a way that is totally your own. You have the right to be virtuous in thought, immoral in thought, biased in thought, and even hateful in thought… it just can’t be expressed in a way that steps on another person’s rights and liberties. I can have a strong dislike for Christians and even feel anger toward them, but I cannot discriminate against them as an employer, be abusive toward them, or say excessively hateful things about them to stir up crowds to act out dangerously toward them. Yet, you can hate Christians and think awful things about them… it is your right to do so… it’s your mind and no one else’s (Just so everyone is aware, I am a Christian, so this is not intended to imply any thoughts I harbor toward Christians).
While I know this sounds radical it really isn’t. It only sounds radical because today, we fear ideas, we’re overly concerned about one another’s emotional and mental safety, and we have lost the ability to debate and dialogue in a way that actually could cause us to change our deeply held feelings, beliefs, and ideas. If I were to argue for or against any current cultural taboo (i.e., abortion, gender identity, marriage, animal rights, etc.) someone would scream that I’m speaking in a way that is harmful or makes them feel unsafe. Certainly, there are ways that might become true (i.e. see the above comments about the common good), but this fear has negated our ability to have our own ideas expressed even in the most rational way. This idea that you have a right to your own ideas, beliefs, feelings, and thoughts is well expressed in things like Thomas Jefferson’s writing on religious freedom, but other Enlightenment thinkers expressed this as well. Thomas Paine, an 18th-century political activist who had a strong influence on America’s founding ideas makes it quite clear that we can and must have a right to our own opinions and to do otherwise leads us to a very bad place:
“I have always strenuously supported the right of every man to his own opinion, however different that opinion might be to mine. He who denies to another this right, makes a slave of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of changing it.”
What is most important about the above quote is not just that it expresses how important it is for us to have our own opinions but that by allowing others to have opinions also allows us to have the right to change ours. We can, and should, always be ready to modify our opinions in the light of better arguments, more facts, and to use a research term, improved data. However, we can’t do that if we believe everyone should think the same way about things (while we may all have any thoughts and opinions we like, I do believe there is an objective reality that we need to embrace or there are negative consequences that occur from ignoring that reality).
The intent of this post is to drive home the point that we cannot allow any faction of society to tell us, “You can’t think that way.” When we allow that to become a cultural mantra, particularly in the name of “making people feel safe” we go down the dangerous path of mental stagnation. We all have the right to think any way we like. It’s an essential part of being human. In fact, in some instances, it is the last line of defense in maintaining our humanity. Victor Frankl wrote a book called, “Man’s Search for Meaning” that outlines his life in Nazi concentration camps as a Jew. He describes how people survived this experience from a psychological perspective. In doing so he reminds us how important it is that we maintain the ability to think of things and hold our own opinions, thoughts, and attitudes about our world regardless of what we are being told. He states:
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
That my friends, is a truth we cannot surrender. In the next post, I will demonstrate some of the best ways to change your opinion so that the mind you create reflects what is most true, beautiful, and good. After all, if you want to live well, the more your mind reflects objective truths the better you can make your way through the world.