Shut Up, They Explained: Why You Don’t Have To ‘Have Been There’ To Have An Opinion

Written by Michael Cummings on April 14, 2018

Can you have an opinion on a topic if you haven’t had in-depth experience in it or are incapable of experiencing it firsthand? In this politically-charged world, are you allowed to have an opinion?

Often used interchangeably, the words empathy and sympathy come into play here, but let’s take a look at the definitions (emphasis mine):

Both sympathy and empathy have roots in the Greek term páthos meaning “suffering, feeling.” The prefix sym- comes from the Greek sýn meaning “with, together with” and the prefix em- derives from the Greek en- meaning “within, in.”

Empathy entered English a few centuries after sympathy—in the late 1800s—with a somewhat technical and now obsolete meaning from the field of psychology, which referred to the physiological manifestation of feelings. Unlike sympathy, empathy …is now most often used to refer to the capacity or ability to imagine oneself in the situation of another, experiencing the emotions, ideas, or opinions of that person.

Think of it this way: Sympathy greeting cards are used to tell someone you’re commiserating with them and their pain; you’re feeling for them. Empathy is a type of commiseration where you attempt to vicariously and sometimes actually experience what a person goes through.

Why do we care about the difference between these two words?

In debates on hot topics like abortion and war, there is a notion often (though not exclusively) thrown out by the left that if you aren’t X or haven’t done Y, you have no right to an opinion. The flip side of this is if you have experienced X or Y, you have full moral and intellectual authority.

It’s not that black and white.

On the subject of abortion, we often hear “No uterus, no opinion.” I was told this years ago by a man. It’s an absurd statement. Naturally, the intended target is anyone who disagrees with murdering unborn babies. It’s curious that men who favor abortion never receive the level of ire from the pro “choice” crowd. No, abortion supporters, that I’m a man doesn’t preclude my ability to have an opinion on what’s right and wrong. Are you saying we can’t research a topic, understand the implications of the various positions, and make judgements?

We can have an opinion on familial adenomatous polyposis and supplementing platinum based doublet regiments with eicosapentaenoic acid. We can even have sympathy with someone who has this type of intestinal cancer. Why are we not allowed to have an opinion about it?

A veteran named Jesse Kelly (@JesseKellyDC, 58,000 followers), whom I admire, said this today on Twitter regarding a potential use of US military force in Syria:

“Got all these chicken hawks screaming at me cause [sic] I don’t want Americans to die for Syria. I’ll respect your desire for war when you either go yourself or send your son/husband to go. Your courage with someone else’s life in uninspiring to say the least.”

If you’ve been in a war, whether in support roles or on the front lines, you have my automatic respect. Not serving in the military is one of the big regrets of my life. But you do not have to be a veteran to know the implications of engaging in combat. How many people who have the authority to send our military to kill the enemy – whether air, sea, or land – don’t know or have no ability to appreciate (sympathize) that some of ours won’t come home, or could come home disabled? Every engagement can cost life, limb, and treasure. Everyone knows this. War is hell, and we do not enter it for transient causes. Why demonize or compromise those who see the inhumanity in Syria, and want to end the suffering of its people? There are multiple ways we can help.

Stephen Hawking never spent time in space but could have told us more about the subject than every astronaut who has ever lived. He couldn’t speak from experience, but was he not allowed to speak? My children have never driven a car, but they know bad things happen when someone speeds or runs a red light. Should they not have an opinion?

Whether you can empathize or sympathize, or you can’t do either, let’s not shut down debate among reasonable people.

Image: CCO Creative Commons; Excerpted from:

Michael Cummings
Michael A. Cummings has a Bachelors in Business Management from St. John's University in Collegeville, MN, and a Masters in Rhetoric & Composition from Northern Arizona University. He has worked as a department store Loss Prevention Officer, bank auditor, textbook store manager, Chinese food delivery man, and technology salesman. Cummings wrote position pieces for the 2010 Trevor Drown for US Senate (AR) and 2012 Joe Coors for Congress (CO) campaigns.