I published a post last week for the first time in ages. In so doing, I stumbled across a graveyard of half-written posts (the kernel of an idea comes easily to me, making this relevant and coherent does not). I’ll see if I can finish a few more posts – here’s another. It starts with a quote:
“…opinions are bad things.
By opinions I do not mean ideas, and I do not mean thought. An opinion is rarely born of thought. Instead it arrives fully formed in a head. Opinions are…almost always emotion in fancy dress. They can be inherited, or they can spring from fears or desires, but they are never right.
Yet look how ferociously, how indefatigably, people cling to their opinions in the face of a flood of evidence that those opinions are at best questionable, and more likely mere dump fodder.
Look at the intransigent folly of so much politics. Look at the nonsense that passes for political debate….if you want to take part in this contest you are required to join a team and in order to join a team you have to have a packaged set of opinions.
Where do these opinions come from? Are they arrived at by rational analysis? If so, and if reason is reason, how come they differ? But opinions are not reasonable.
We are emotional creatures in an irrational world. Anyone who holds opinions is wrong and dangerous…The only comfortable seat for a thinking human being is a fence.
…and that’s my opinion.” (Joe Bennett1)
Joe’s article (from which the quote is pulled) brings a broad smile to my face. I absolutely love the penultimate line. In the societies that I have known (the UK, and to a lesser extent NZ) the phrase ‘sitting on the fence’ is often (i.e. normally) used as an insult – and yet this has always irritated me. I often find myself sitting on the proverbial fence…because I feel that I don’t know enough to pass judgement.
I don’t see this as a bad thing. Whenever I find myself in a ‘fencing-sitting’ scenario, it suggests that:
- I shouldn’t be giving an opinion (no matter how hard I am pushed to do so)….since I clearly feel that I don’t know enough; and
- I could do with learning some more.
I see the ‘I’m fence-sitting’ circumstance as a useful realisation because, if I care about the issue in focus, then it should trigger me into putting some effort into ‘digging in’, to uncover facts, to appreciate perspectives, to see the bigger picture. In so doing, I am highly likely to move to a new (and more productive) place.
Merely having an opinion and sticking to it is likely to keep me anchored rigidly to the spot, as if stuck at the bottom of a deep lake in a pair of concrete boots.
A likely critique:
“But you’d never get anywhere Steve! You’d be forever stuck, like a broken record.”
I would suggest the opposite.
‘Not having opinions’ doesn’t have to mean staying meekly silent. Rather, it implies entering and sustaining an open-minded dialogue. This would require skillfully setting out:
- what you think you know, and why;
- what you are uncertain of, and why; and
- what you understand as clear holes in your knowledge.
…and thus collaborating with others who can perhaps expand the group’s (never to be complete) jigsaw of knowledge.
Further, ‘not having opinions’ does not mean ‘not making decisions’. Rather, it means using facts to make decisions, and investing in the (hugely rewarding) effort of collecting facts before doing so.
If you feel that you don’t know, well go and find out some more!
We’d probably move away from ‘implementing ideologies’ (going fast to go slow) to ‘experimenting with hypotheses’ and making adjustments as we learn (going slow to go fast).
…but that’s just my opinion 😊.
On ‘going and find out more’
‘Finding out more’ doesn’t mean canvasing other people’s opinions or biasing your search for ‘evidence’ to that which supports your opinion. It means going to the ‘coal face’, observing reality (and the variation within), collecting the evidence for yourself and reflecting on what it is telling you.
A nice quote I heard the other day from a colleague:
“If you haven’t observed, you can’t talk”.
Now, that’s quite a bold and (perhaps blanket) statement, but there’s a rather important point within.
If we are not (yet) in a position to be able to observe (i.e. gain primary evidence) then I’d suggest that we should listen very carefully to those that have.
I recognise that this short post may be questioned by many, since opinions are (rightly or wrongly) a huge part of life.
I’ve written a number of earlier posts in this space and if you’d like to play with the idea further, here are a few to look at:
Take ‘Brexit’ as an example (the idea of Britain leaving the European Union).
Who’s got a strongly held opinion regarding Brexit? I’d suggest millions of people.
Who can (really) say that they fully understand what is being proposed and what will transpire? I’d suggest maybe a handful of ‘experts’…and even these will likely be wide of the mark.
…and with that thought, who will move onto the fence, to stop pushing their opinion and, instead, spend some real effort to further try to understand? Perhaps not so many.
‘Fence sitting’, at least while you are (meaningfully) learning, is a most excellent place to be.
Conversely, who’s dug into themselves, to think about the emotions that are answerable for driving their opinions? (Inherited from their parents? Created by their fears? Constructed from their cravings?…)
A reminder that Joe wrote that “Opinions are…almost always emotion in fancy dress”.
What costume(s) are you (and I) wearing? Why?
1. Joe Bennett is a most excellent writer of short, insightful, challenging (usually contrarian) articles that are published weekly in our local newspaper (‘The Press’) here in Christchurch New Zealand. https://www.joebennett.nz/