Do you like to opine? I like to opine. Anne Frank said “People can tell you to keep your mouth shut, but that doesn’t stop you from having your own opinion.” Opinions are tricky things. Generally, one might argue that they are good things. After all, a person short of opinions is either dull, or uninformed, or both. So, it is fine to have one, but most people, me included, feel it’s important to make other people share the ones we have. And sharing is a good thing, is it not? We are social animals, and whether we are sharing food, wine, music, conversation or love, we are the better for sharing. But sharing opinions is not quite so straightforward. It is often less agreeable.
I wonder why that is? Why we have an opinion, but feel a want to see others adopt it? Are we not confident enough in our own opinions that we need affirmations and confirmation from others? Is it uncomfortable to sit with an opinion and accept it is not shared? This is not an exploration of ‘cancel culture’, although I can see the links, but just some consideration of opinions. When I was younger, indeed, it may still be the case, I admired opinion holders, especially if they helped me form my own opinions. I wanted to be that person, erudite, witty, informed, and that generous. But now, I am less sure. I find myself checking my own opinions and wondering about the reception they might get.
Self-censorship may not necessarily be a bad thing. Psychoanalytically we use ego to censor the id. The ego socialises the drives that emerge from the unconscious. We feel compelled to do or say something but the ego intervenes to make sure our conduct is socially acceptable. For the satisfactory functioning of society that seems to me to be a good thing. Ths, though, takes us into the territory of ‘free speech’. Does freedom allow one to offend another? Should it? Free speech is a thornier issue and I am not really interested in trying to justify what one should be free to say, but trying to justify where some limitations might apply. I am aware that having an opinion, and wanting to express it, is related to this issue though.
Dictionary definitions include, that an opinion is ‘a belief or conclusion held with confidence but not substantiated by positive knowledge or proof’. So, opinions can be held irrespective of their factual merit. In the same way that one can argue that it is fine to disagree with what someone else says but feel the need to defend to the death the right to say it, so the liberal in me feels that deciding which opinions are not for sharing is uncomfortably authoritarian. And yet, I impose constraints on myself when deciding whether my opinions could or should be shared. I like Harlan Ellison’s view, “You are not entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to your informed opinion. No one is entitled to be ignorant.”
Opinions are intangible; invisible, yet they can inflame another person and sometimes cause harm. It is rare for them not to affect relationships. Why? If we cannot touch them and they cannot be seen, how can we afford them so much value? And though we cannot see or touch them, we know they are all around us. Hearing someone else’s opinion can affect our view of that person, even if it is as banal as being ‘a cat or a dog person’, or which season of the year one prefers, or what way round one tops a scone with the jam and the cream. We know opinions are not supported by proofs and yet we associate absolutism to other people’s opinions. The joy of opinions should be the ability to alter them.
The twittersphere is a place to encounter opinion. This can be good; it can be educational but because of the likelihood of being offended, I retreat to the like-minded. I find that my twitter engagement is as much about what I choose not to engage with, as it is about the people I like to follow, whose opinions I like. This is not a particularly healthy thing, and I know it. Suddenly I am in my own ‘echo chamber’ and not celebrating the diversity of opinion which might make me retest my own views.
Parenting throws up some huge issues over opinions. Few parents have not felt the sense that their own parents may not entirely agree with how they parent their offspring, and been especially sensitive to the opinions of in-laws. As the children develop, should one pass on one’s opinions, or strain to encourage offspring to form their own, however unpalatable? I find it difficult to discuss opinions with my father. We know we disagree on some things, and we may both think that is not a bad thing, but we know it is easier to avoid subjects than to enjoy our different opinions. It limits our conversation and that is disappointing. However, my parents did encourage me to learn and to think for myself. To me, that seems to be a virtue, yet I know I worry that any one of my children may express their own opinions and in this over-censorious modern world find themselves lambasted for it, or in some cases, worse. I believe the expression is a ‘pile-on’.
There is something important about generational differences of opinion. Much of it is about appreciating context. I like to test myself with thinking about historical events and seeing if I think my opinions would have been different if I had been living at that time. I can recall what I thought about Blair and the Iraq war decision, and I can think about my views on Thatcher and the miners, but would I have backed Churchill in the 30’s, or welcomed the Appeasement strategy that was very much in vogue? How would I have regarded Gandhi’s campaign? I admired Mandela, but I knew him as an eloquent advocate and not a terrorist/violent activist. Would I have supported Roy Jenkins’s more liberal attitude to homosexuality in the late 60’s. I would like to think so, but I know that my instincts are conservative with a small ‘c’.
Today, I went on a very enjoyable walk with two old friends and ex-colleagues. We have experience of running business units and departments in investment banks and of sharp end trading experience in the ’87 crash and the Global Financial Crisis. Trading floor experience and daily sifting of ‘market opinion’ means we each have plenty to say on most issues. We can cover football; policing; Bob Dylan singer v poet; housing policies; ski infrastructure investment; John Coltrane’s ‘Love Supreme’; transgender politics; modern journalism; Tony Blair; tattoos; vinyl vs digital; Phil Foden’s exquisite skills; mindfulness, in a few hours, as we did, and manage not to offend one another. It does not mean we share each other’s opinions on all these topics.
What worries me, and I don’t think worry is overstating this, is an apparent intolerance of opinions. Growing up I was vaguely aware that there was a skill in debating an opinion and persuading someone of the merits of one’s own opinion. It may be this that has become the issue. Everything is reduced to binary outcomes these days, to winners and losers, to in-groups and out-groups. We would rather decry another opinion than listen to it, because we have assumed a marriage between our (group-held) opinions and our identity. My twitter follower list tells me how guilty I am of this, myself. The partisanship of US politics, which seems to me to undermine the virtues of democratic debate, is more cause for concern than celebration. At least, that is my opinion; you of course, may disagree!
“When another blames you or hates you, or people voice similar criticisms, go to their souls, penetrate inside and see what sort of people they are. You will realize that there is no need to be racked with anxiety that they should hold any particular opinion about you.” — Marcus Aurelius