Well…to continue…a while along the path of “individualism.”
Individualism, as ideology, as symbolic of standing on one’s own two legs, separates person from person just as the mobility of the child, when he or she begins to walk, makes possible the separation of child from mother. Individualism separates by voiding one’s relationship to groups, to the group of one’s ethnic heritage, to the group of one’s religion, to the group of one’s class, or to the group of one’s gender. The individual is no one of these things, and before the law at least, the group memberships of the individual should make no difference to one’s judgment of the individual.
Most teachers of writing, I expect, have talked with a student who complains, because of something the teacher has said or written on a paper, “But I have a right to my own opinion, don’t I?” Well, of course, one tries to say, but while one has a right to one’s opinion, there are different kinds of opinions. One is looking, one says, for reasoned opinion, opinion backed up by some evidence and argument. Of course, it’s hard to say this without implying that the opinion of the student is somehow inferior to one’s own. This, of course, is what the student hears. That his or her opinion is inferior, and that you the teacher are saying, in effect, I am the teacher and you are not.
I don’t think it would be better to say this—not if one wishes to educate—but I have wanted to say, “Look, you call this your own opinion, and you have a right to it because it is your own. But I don’t think your “own” opinion is your “own” opinion at all. No, it is but the feeble echo of the opinion of several million other people who have the same opinion that you have. In what sense is it your own if millions of others have it? Did you buy it? As one might a pair of jeans.
No, an opinion is something a person has to earn. And if I had any sense at all that you had earned it, I might not have spoken as I did. In fact, had I felt that you had earned your opinion, I might have responded to it conversationally, engaged you in dialogue about it, but when I feel the opinion has not been earned, I don’t think I am talking to an individual at all but a mob, with a single idea in its head. And really one cannot engage a mob in meaningful dialogue.”
My reasons for not saying this to the student are multiple. I guess I would rather imply that students’ reasoning is not so hot, than say outright they are not individuals, but sociologically speaking apes of others, strange somnambulists wondering around mumbling things that they have heard their minister or their father say. Many of my students have been told that they are “special” from day one, and being told that they are by no means special, at least in the realm of opinion, could hurt their feelings.
Also I have found that students who baldly state their right to their opinion, with no caveats, qualifications, or other people might see something different since everything is relative, can be gutsy. Perhaps, and who knows, they feel very strongly about this cliché that they consider their own opinion.. If so rather than insult such students, I think it better to try to check it out, and see what possibly, even if unexpressed, might give it force. Of course, one could be dealing with a bonehead.