On Presidential Debates and Opinions

APTOPIX Campaign 2016 Debate

As a scholar of debate and communication, I get asked a lot what I think about presidential debates and politics in general. While I certainly do have political beliefs (duh), I often don’t disclose them to my students recognizing the “weight” that my voice has in the classroom. In other words, as soon as I give my opinion, students feel like theirs should match mine. Yet, I feel strongly invested in my beliefs, even as I recognize that they are the product of my unique experiences.

The hard part comes in figuring out how you as a professor can make students more reflective, thoughtful, and engaged as a result of having taken your course. I take as one of my goals not telling students what to think, but helping them figure out why they think the way they do.

As a result, one of the most common questions that I ask in class is “Why?” In an attempt to make them justify and articulate their assumptions, reasons, and values.

This is why, when I saw this piece making the rounds on my social media feeds, it resonated with me–especially in regards to the 2016 election.

In it, the author, professor Patrick Stokes, argues that we are not all “entitled to our opinions.” He explains:

So what does it mean to be “entitled” to an opinion?

If “Everyone’s entitled to their opinion” just means no-one has the right to stop people thinking and saying whatever they want, then the statement is true, but fairly trivial. No one can stop you saying that vaccines cause autism, no matter how many times that claim has been disproven.

But if ‘entitled to an opinion’ means ‘entitled to have your views treated as serious candidates for the truth’ then it’s pretty clearly false. And this too is a distinction that tends to get blurred.

Stokes then goes on to suggest that having to justify our beliefs is what makes them worthwhile and “serious candidates.”

I hope in some small way my continual “whys” in the classroom can help students learn to justify and evaluate–skills I dare say are important in our information-saturated society.

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