Why You Should Have More Opinions
"Opinions are like assholes..."
Most of the time, that quote is enough to keep me from saying what I think. And we’re often so afraid of speaking our minds, we never get to Part B of the quote:
"...everyone has one, and everyone thinks everyone else's stinks."
Maybe it’s because Part B doesn’t role off the tongue quite as well as Part A. Whatever the case, it used to seal the deal for me. I never wanted to stir the pot. Still don't.
But since I started sharing my opinions more openly, my opinion on opinions has changed.
Why Opinions Aren't Like Assholes
I don't mean that we should spout whatever comes to our minds in any setting. We should still master choosing our battles. My claim, rather, is that most of the time we liken our opinions to private parts, we're wrong. And it hurts more than it helps.
In fact, I think the "asshole" stance constitutes one of the most insidious and culturally-damaging mentalities of our time. You might say this makes no intuitive sense in the age of "opinion diarrhea." Who wants to see more boomer grannies arguing with their commie cousins? Why would you want more of this?
It all hinges on a proper definition of "opinion." We've runaway with an improper definition, because it's catchier and friendlier at first glance. Also, the better definition may require us to read a book. It’s from Plato:
"Opinion is the medium between knowledge and ignorance."
Opinion as medium - such contrast!
We're tasked with holding both this and the "assholes" quote as true at once. Is opinion "asshole" or "medium"? Figuring this out, moment-to-moment, determines the quality of the battles we choose. The length we go in either direction creates what we experience as public discourse.
Today, we face the problem of a dial turned too far in the "asshole" direction. Because opinions today are like assholes, we prefer to err on the side of no conflict, favoring a wholesome 90/10 passive-to-aggressive ratio.
Unfortunately, this unbalanced characterization of opinion bleeds from the realm of discourse and into physical reality. The effects are on display for anyone with eyes.
What Happens When You Don't Opine
When the mainstream understands opinions as something you only do in the bathroom with yourself, only the opinions of those with no meter or filter see the light of day.
We're left with apes slinging feces while polite society sits back and waits for the storm to pass. Like someone trying to soothe a drunk, these "polite" ones are the very people who would otherwise know how to use their opinions in non-damaging ways.
But they remain silent.
It really is a matter of time before our avoidance of conversation becomes an avoidance of action. What will the polite person do when the drunkard grabs his car keys? The answer is not pretty.
I just watched a video of aman punching a womanon the New York subway. No one moved a muscle.
Just days before, another New York subway story made rounds where a man raped a woman in broad daylight, in front of another motionless crowd.
These are both freakish events in themselves. The lack of a single Good Samaritan makes them freakier. But what makes them freakiest is not exceptional to the New York subway. Rather, it's symptomatic of a nation-wide illness: we seek to avoid conflict at increasingly high cost.
The illness metastasizes from a fear of speaking to a fear of action, which becomes more evident the longer we avoid conflict. We lose touch with the instinct that tells us when to step in and say "enough is enough." We're unable to tell whether a moment requires chiming or standing in the gap for someone more vulnerable than ourselves.
The good news is that we can do something about it. And while the problem is more dire than we imagine, the solution is just as hopeful.
1. Interpret Foreign Opinions Honestly
Though many may try, no one will ever nail down a universal time and place for opinion-sharing. Opinions are volatile. The people receiving them are volatile. It only makes sense that the time and place housing people and their opinions will change.
This is but one reason why the concept of a regulated "safe space" makes no sense. No space can ever be perpetually "safe", as far as speech is concerned.
Conversely, we can choose to make a space safe by becoming the source of safety ourselves. We can chip away at the problem by simply acknowledging the power of an opinion and our responsibility for tactfully representing it.
If we can further identify opinions for what they really are - not obstacles, but tunnels and bridges to other people - we would see the benefit of developing an opinion on anything and everything. More of us would talk as we take greater ownership of our inner and interpersonal dialogues. If we all do this at the same time, a more livable world shines forth.
This takes work on the part of every individual. But contrary to what most believe, that work does not involve posting on social media or reaming your parents at the dinner table. Instead, we should foster a healthy general conversation by meticulously caring for the specific ones. Defining opinion as "medium" is a good start, but the foundation is incomplete without a proper course of action.
2. Practice Brutal Honesty with Those You Trust
We will fix the general discourse by recovering what was lost in our specific discourse. In other words, we should share opinions with friends.
While this seems like a no-brainer, cultural and biological pandemics have carved new lines between people. More than 60% have political opinions they're afraid to share. Probably because others have lost friends or jobs over mask-wearing or police shootings.
This is exactly where the Platonic definition of "opinion" comes into use: the moment when opinions are most "intense" is when the view of opinion as "medium" becomes most crucial. You must share.
You must share, but you must share properly at the same time. No one wants a creaky bridge or a leaky tunnel. How we formulate our opinions matters just as much as whether we say them at all.
The first step, then, is to acquire a posture of receptivity and resilience toward the opinions of others. If we misunderstand another's opinion, then form our own based on the misinterpretation, we commit a "straw-man fallacy." We attack an enemy that doesn't exists - which makes up most of today's discourse already.
If we can be both receptive and resilient toward another's opinion, we will be ready to share our own.
That's where the fun starts, but it's where most of us fall off the wagon.
We don't share our polarizing opinions just to feel good about ourselves. We share them so that we can arrive at better opinions later, so that we can achieve a higher frequency of dialogue than we currently inhabit.
3. Make an Art of Freely Opining
Be bold enough to share your opinions with friends and colleagues. Arm yourself with a receptive, resilient attitude, but don't merely receive.
Instead, maintain a triad of receptivity, resilience and assertiveness. This makes for continually improving relationships, which extends further to communities and societies.
Not only does it benefit the general dialogue, it also enriches your personal life. Your life is made enjoyable with more opinion, not less.
Is it risky? Sure. Will there be strain? Absolutely. But the fruit of laborious conversation tastes better than one that's been strangled to death by the weeds of fear. And there's enough fruit to go around.
Speaking as a man caught up in various male circles, the gatherings with more opinions were always more interesting. My best friends and I loved ribbing each other over cigars; I loved hearing their opinions on the world - crazy, stupid, intelligent, whatever.
My friends also loved hearing my stupid ideas more than my sitting silent as a vegetable in the corner. This was my favorite circle.
In other circles, the understanding was outright, "You don't need to have an opinion on everything," or even, "Opinions are stupid." These were unnaturally sedate, like we were in a mental hospital and had just taken our medication.
Two films come to mind. the latter dialogue emulates One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, penned-up, controlled, yearning for an escape.
The former evokes Fight Club, dangerous, but free and alive.
If we can mirror Fight Club instead of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, speech can remain free and alive as well.
We can encourage healthy sparring without organizing a full-on cult. We can be honest and kind to each other - and when we are honest and unkind, we can bounce back.
We first need to understand opinions, what they are and how to use them.
The only way to do that is to use them more, and use them right.
Michael A. Stenger