Sorry to be the one to tell you this, but you have no right to an opinion.
Here are 10 reasons your views mean nothing – not even that they’re wrong, which would be to do you too much credit. They’re just irrelevant.
1. You’re a woman
These days in the UK, you might be less likely to have your gender used against you explicitly than was the case a few decades ago. Instead, it will show up in the language used as a shortcut to dismiss whatever you have to say.
Mary Beard has made this point on several occasions, including in a 2014 lecture when she said:
In making a public case, in speaking out, what are women said to be? They’re said to be ‘strident’. They ‘whinge’ and they ‘whine.’ When after one particularly vile bout of internet comments on my own genitalia, I tweeted, rather pluckily I thought, that ‘it was all a bit gobsmacking’. This got reported by one commentator in a mainstream British magazine in these terms: ‘The misogyny’ is truly gobsmacking, she whined.’
Listen out for adjectives like “shrill” and “hysterical”, or a tendency to talk about the personal, highly emotional source of your views, in contrast with your critic’s apparently rational position.
2. You’re not from round these parts
A British friend who lives and works in Japan told me of a conversation he had in an English class with a teenage student. In a chat about the different ways school classrooms are organised in the UK in Japan, my friend said he preferred the British way, as Japanese teachers have the hassle of needing to carry all their equipment from class to class. (In British schools, the students move between classrooms, not so much the teachers.)
The student replied flatly, “You don’t have the right to criticise Japan,” a sentence it seemed she’d learned ahead of time.
As a foreigner, newcomer or outside observer, your opinions on a country’s politics will often be discounted – as long, of course, as they’re negative. (Note that praise is completely OK.) Even if you were born in the country, there’ll still usually be something that can be used against you – you’re only second/third/fourth generation, not ethnically native, or perhaps just a bit too fond of fancy foreign food to count.
3. Something to do with your ancestors…
Along the same lines, you may find your opinions discounted on the grounds of a sort of ‘genetic memory’ that colours your views. This is what Boris Johnson seemed to be getting at when he referred to Barack Obama’s ‘ancestral dislike’ of the British Empire. Presumably Johnson himself is immune from any ‘ancestral jingoism’ from his own lineage and class background?
Note also the limits of Johnson’s imagination – why might someone have issues with the British Empire, or indeed all empires? It simply must be something to do with his upbringing – any other motivation would be ridiculous.
4. You’ve been here too long
If they can’t get any traction on the ‘outsider’ route, you might come up against the opposite tactic – accused of ‘going native’. This was what happened back in 2004, when over 50 highly experienced diplomats, many with a background in the Middle East, wrote to the then-Prime Minister, Tony Blair, to express their ‘anxieties’ and ‘dismay’ at direction of UK foreign policy. The response? Lots of Ministerial briefings to journalists, dismissing the concerns of the ‘camel corps’ who all ‘went native’ years ago. Charming, right?
5. You’ve wandered way past your academic field
This is a wonderfully selective tactic, used with wearying regularity against Noam Chomsky, although I don’t recall hearing it about anyone else. Chomsky’s work is nowhere near as wide-ranging as, say, Jared Diamond’s or even George Monbiot’s. But, whereas the former is praised for ‘the vast scope of his analysis’ (in the Mail on Sunday no less), Chomsky is routinely dismissed as a linguist with no right to stray beyond his disciplinary boundaries.
For more background on this, Check out Eric Herring’s fascinating article on Chomsky’s treatment within academia here.
6. You’re just another expert
So, let’s say your academic training or life experience fits exactly with the topic you’re discussing. You can hardly be dismissed as a crank – so instead expect your expertise to be used against you. “People in this country have had enough of experts,” said Michael Gove after refusing to name any economists who back Britain’s exit from the European Union. Plenty of other specialists are routinely ignored, from educationalists to criminologists, whenever their views clash with prevailing political orthodoxies.
7. You’re young and naïve
As with your gender, your age isn’t likely to be used directly. Instead, your ideas and opinions will be called ‘trendy’, ‘fashionable’ or perhaps ‘appealing’, as if those labels are enough to dismiss them without any further consideration. In writing, they might literally spell out the word ‘Sigh’ in response something you’ve posted, while in person they’ll look straight through you towards the grown-ups, who’ll roll their eyes in unison. It requires zero effort, intelligence or imagination to dismiss you this way – which must be why it’s the go-to approach to dealing with politicised young people.
8. You’re old and out of touch
Oh, you’re not young? Well that’s OK because your experience doesn’t count anyway. Everything has changed and there’s no use harking back to the past. The rules of today’s game are beyond all recognition to you, so best retire from the struggle gracefully. The globalisation of capital, for example, means unions – whatever their value before – will only hold us back. The nihilistic death-seeking ideology of our terrorist enemies today means that any previous lessons about peace-making from around the world are naïve at best. And the development of super-smart weapons means your memories of earlier wars mean nothing.
9. You believe [insert innocuous belief], just like [insert monster] did
There are many ways you can be lumped in with all manner of wrong ‘uns. One technique is to find a belief that you happen to share with an absolute wankhammer, and then exploit so that you appear equivalent in every respect. One example that stuck in my head comes from many years ago, when I brought up climate change at a university seminar. My professor told me quite seriously that environmentalism has the same Romantic German roots as Nazism!
That was me told then.
Centrists use this technique a lot, lumping, say, Caroline Lucas and Nigel Farage together for both being against the single European currency, or seeing UKIP and Corbyn’s Labour as equivalent, because they both represent a brand of ‘expressive individualism’, in the words of Nick Clegg.
I should add that there’s nothing between Stalin and Clegg when it comes to their views on the theory of gravity. Just sayin’.
10. You’re just a [insert taboo term here].
Finally, there’s the least subtle option of all – the use of a one-word label to drain you of all credibility, without having to engage with your arguments.
This seems to happen in academia as a matter of course. The ethologist Frans de Waal has written about how, until recently, primatologists did everything they could to avoid being tarred with the ‘anthropomorphism’ brush, even going so far as to ignore or re-frame obvious acts of kindness or empathy between animals. (Talk of ‘aggression’ or warlike behaviour was of course considered completely value-free.)
In international relations, taboo terms like ‘reductionist’ helped to ensure a level of ideological compliance for a long time up until the end of the Cold War (at which point more people realised that maybe, economics was vaguely important after all). ‘Positivism’ appears to have the same effect in education studies, at least in the UK. Maybe every field has an equivalent?
In the even grubbier world of politics, the horrid phrase ‘terrorist-sympathiser’ has been used recently to powerful effect. ‘Guardianista’ has a whiff of sarcasm about it, and to my mind ‘Corbynista’ has a patronising undercurrent.1
The left isn’t exempt from the use of these labels by any means, with expressions like ‘Red Tory’ and ‘Blairite’ being widespread. Actually, I’m not sure if ‘Blairite’ really counts – it’s just the term evokes such anger and disgust in me I can only interpret it is an appalling insult. To be honest, I’m not sure I’d even call Blair a Blairite to his face. I just wasn’t brought up to use language like that…
Some of these 10 may contain a hint of justifiability. For example, I’m more interested in what large-scale studies by health academics tell us about diet than unqualified lifestyle bloggers (see my review of the Angry Chef for context). So the issue here is about consistency of approach – it doesn’t make sense to listen to the scientific consensus when it comes to diet or medicine, but entirely dismiss climate change science on the grounds that the experts know nothing.
Others, particularly age, gender and ethnicity, are powerful in part because they’re rarely spoken. But, very quickly, our idea of the value of someone’s opinion can be coloured by the use of language and other subtle means that circumvent our conscious mind, opening our ears to some voices and deafening us to others.