What I Think About What You Think

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As the old saying goes, opinions are like anuses: everybody has one, and everybody thinks theirs doesn’t stink, and some are dangerously unpredictable and will not hold up under scrutiny and have a tendency to make others uncomfortable. Who among us has not at one time or another been offended by the tenor of someone’s loud, squawking opinion?

The question is, what should we do about it when someone holds a belief we don’t agree with?

Roger Ebert, the legendary movie critic and thumb-haver, recently wrote a blog entry called “How I am a Roman Catholic.” Since he doesn’t believe in God, it basically boiled down to: “Eh, I’m not, really.” But one paragraph, about birth control and abortion, caught my attention. Ebert wrote:

“I support freedom of choice. My choice is to not support abortion, except in cases of a clear-cut choice between the lives of the mother and child. A child conceived through incest or rape is innocent and deserves the right to be born.”

Ebert is an outspoken liberal, so I was surprised that this was his view, since it is my understanding that liberals love abortions and would just go out and have them all the time if they could, for fun. And in the awful cases of rape or incest that Ebert refers to, even plenty of conservatives are OK with abortion. It’s something most people agree on — and here’s Ebert, famed lefty, proponent of Hollywood smut, and unapologetic Siskel-coddler, saying “a child conceived through incest or rape is innocent and deserves the right to be born.”

Notice I said I was surprised by Ebert’s position (which I don’t entirely agree with), but I wasn’t outraged or infuriated. Why? Because my medication has left me numb to all passions. But also because his opinion doesn’t affect me. It doesn’t affect anyone but him and the women in his life. He wasn’t saying that this should be the law. Quite the opposite: he said, “I support freedom of choice.” Then he explained what HIS choice would be. Now, it is unlikely that Ebert himself will ever be pregnant — he is far past his reproductive years, and also a man — but presumably he means that if his wife, daughter, niece, or close friend were considering abortion, his advice to her, to the extent that she asked him for it, would run along these lines. Still, it would be HER choice. He is clear on that.

But boy howdy, did some of his readers ever get mad at him for having this opinion! Like many poorly reasoned rebuttals, these were expressed by anonymous cowards in the comments section. A sampling:

I cannot agree that a child conceived from rape “deserves” to be born. As a woman, I have no choice but to believe that [no] child should be born that may not be loved or supported. It must be the choice of [the] pregnant woman. [… which is WHAT EBERT SAID]

The woman who is raped is also innocent. She deserves a say in the matter. [… which is WHAT EBERT SAID]

your abortion stance, if law, would result in millions of women dying from illegal abortions. [Good thing he didn’t say it should be law! Good thing he said the opposite of that!]

Uh-huh. So what does the raped woman deserve? Not the basic human right of control over her own body? [No! The opposite of that! Like he said! In the same paragraph!]

Do you see what happened here? Ebert gave his opinion on a subject, stating up front that he did NOT believe this opinion should be enforced as law — and people got angry with him JUST BECAUSE HE FELT THIS WAY. Because it’s not the belief they think he should have.

This is what’s dangerous, my friends: scolding someone merely for HAVING A BELIEF. Unless you are a pregnant woman within Roger Ebert’s sphere of personal influence, his opinions on abortion have nothing to do with you. You can disagree with them, obviously. But to object on the grounds that his opinions are “wrong,” and that he shouldn’t have them, is uncomfortably close to the realm of Thought Police.

Let’s say I’m a racist. Let’s say I believe that Eskimos are an inferior race and that I want nothing to do with them. (This is hypothetical, of course. I know that “Eskimos” are not real.) This is my right as a human being and an American. I can hate Eskimos all I want. That is none of your concern. You can disagree with me, of course, and think I’m a narrow-minded fool for feeling this way. You can tell me right to my face that you think that. That’s your right, too, just as hating those whale-hunting, seal-eating sub-humans is my right.

What you cannot do is tell me I’m not allowed to think that. Well, you can tell me. But you’ll be wrong. I am allowed to think that.

The only way my opinions matter to anyone other than me is if I act on them: if I try to drum up support for anti-Eskimo legislation, for example, or if I put up a “No Eskimos” sign at my place of business, or if I am abusive to the Eskimos I encounter in my daily life, perhaps shouting “Polar bear!” in a crowded igloo. Merely having a belief, no matter how cockamamie, is not a danger to society in and of itself. It’s only when I use that belief to infringe on others’ rights that it becomes an issue. That’s when you can start objecting.

The reason I feel this way (about opinions, not Eskimos) is that we all cast judgment on one another ALL THE TIME. And as long as that’s all we’re doing — having an opinion — it’s not worth getting worked up about. It’s OK to believe that people who do certain things are sinners who will go to hell. It’s OK to look with disdain upon people who wear pajama pants in public. It’s OK to never want your daughter to date an Eskimo. Yes, we need to be civil and decent to the people whose views and actions we disapprove of, and afford them the same rights and courtesies as everyone else. I want to be abundantly clear about that. But we’re allowed to go on disapproving of them.

Oh, you don’t want anyone judging you or thinking ill of you? You think “tolerance” means everyone should not only let you do whatever you want but also approve of it? Sorry, it doesn’t work that way. People think that other people’s thoughts and actions are stupid or wrong or bad. That’s just how people are. We all do it. We do it all the time! You think she gave up on her marriage too easily. You think they have too many children. You think his girlfriend is too young for him. You think the reason he’s overweight is that he’s lazy. You think she should quit daydreaming and get a real job. And yet you’re still friends with these people. You still love them, despite your distaste for some of their behaviors. And they love you, even though they think your political views are regressive, and your taste in music is lousy, and you throw your money around ostentatiously.

Let’s get back to Ebert’s abortions. He doesn’t support them “except in cases of a clear-cut choice between the lives of the mother and child.” So if you are a woman who has an abortion for some other reason, does that mean Ebert thinks less of you? Does it mean he’s judging you? I doubt he would say so, because he’s generally a decent person and it would be unkind. But sure, maybe deep down he would think that you made the wrong choice. But — and this is my point — so what? As long as his judgment of you doesn’t manifest itself in acts that restrict your rights, his opinion is his to have. That’s my opinion, anyway.