On having an opinion

You always own the option of having no opinion. There is never any need to get worked up or to trouble your soul about things you can’t control. These things are not asking to be judged by you. Leave them alone.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

I have a friend – let’s call him John. John is one of the smartest people I know. He’s a pure mathematician by inclination, and when I say pure he can’t even tell the time on a digital clock after 12 noon (he subtracts the wrong number) but if you can solve it using group theory he’s all over it. He once wrote a paper on optimising the Malaysian rail system, which is entirely single-track, without once using the word ‘train.’ That’s the kind of person John is.

I’ve known John for a very long time; since we were twelve, which is longer ago than either of us would care to remember. But he is defined for me by something he said to me when we were at university together: “I am prepared to have an opinion on anything.”

In saying this, I think he was in advance of his time, because nowadays everyone, it seems, is prepared to have an opinion on anything. My favourite Internet acronym is IANAL: I Am Not A Lawyer. Or, to put it another way: I am aware that my opinion is of no value whatever, and yet I am still going to tell you what it is. This was going on well before social media, as Usenet veterans will tell you, but it is everywhere today (and indeed Usenet itself is still a thing, believe it or not).

Now you might say that this sort of thing is a bit rich coming from someone who has a blog. After all, isn’t a blog just a vehicle for someone’s opinion? And that’s true, of course, and if I didn’t think my opinion had value I would be deep in IANAL territory. However, I tend to write on subjects that I have thought about in some depth, and usually researched in some depth as well. I don’t pretend to be the font of all wisdom, but I like to think there is some wisdom in there somewhere.

Sturgeon’s Law would lead us to expect that 90% of Internet content would be crap. In reality, the percentage does seem to be considerably higher. Why? Because it is mere opinion. It is not the product of thought or of research. It is just the content of someone’s head at a given moment.

Such content has been put there by some process. For most people, most of the time, it has been put there by someone else. This is not in itself a bad thing. A rough definition of culture, after all, is the stuff which has been put into our heads by other people: this is good to eat, you should avoid that, and people who do that other thing are beneath contempt. Every choice excludes other possible choices, and culture is nothing if not a shared set of possible choices. All societies are defined in this way, and I doubt if you could find any group of people anywhere, at any period of history, who did not have some form of self-definition along these lines. We would certainly miss this in our society if it weren’t there.

But you can be more or less aware of your culture. Most people, most of the time, just go with the flow. In such cases, your opinions are largely pre-fabricated. It’s one thing to have opinions; quite another when your opinions have you. Very few people raised as an orthodox Jew, or as a Muslim, or indeed as a vegetarian, will spend much time on the question: “Should I eat this bacon sandwich?” For me, as an ex-vegetarian who has raised his own pigs (and baked his own bread) there is much more to it. How did the pig live and die? How was the bacon made? Was the bread baked using the Chorleywood process? Is there proper brown sauce?

You can see from this example how much easier it is to have a ready-made answer to hand in these situations. To the extent that the ready-made answer will do well enough it is, from a Darwinian perspective, better to have one and use it. People got around the world quite adequately using Ptolemaic astronomy as their guide. We put men on the Moon using Newtonian physics; it may not be “the Truth™” but the maths is so much simpler than Einstein’s version, and it’s accurate enough to do the job.

Problems arise, however, when the ready-made answer no longer cuts the mustard. It seems to me that many of the issues we face today exhibit this problem. For example:

  • The economy is failing to deliver the goods we want at the price we want. I’m sure you can think of multiple examples of this from your own recent experience. Several responses suggest themselves: want less; pay more; do without; roll your own. But no: we prefer the canned answer: Grow the economy! Because there will always be more stuff, amirite?
  • Politician X has made claim Y that I simply can’t believe. Again, I’m sure you can think of plenty of specific examples; God knows I can. Here there are two canned responses, depending on whether politician X belongs to your party; either Politician X is a lying scum-bag like all the rest of the Z party or Politician X was misquoted and really meant to make the different and more defensible claim Y’. Neither of these responses allows for the possibilities that politician X was (a) high on drugs, (b) said so on behalf of corporation Q, who will be offering her/him a well-paid sinecure when she/he leaves politics, (c) is so genuinely dumb that she/he knows no better, (d) is a space cadet pure and simple. Frankly, most of those explanations are more plausible these days. If I could get my hands on whatever Boris Johnson is smoking lately, I’d be sorely tempted.
  • Disease X is killing Y people! This is a hot one, for reasons that could do with unpicking, but in the past many theories have been proposed for this kind of thing: the wrath of God being a popular one in Western culture (the Plague of Justinian and the Black Death both elicited this response, which was a stock one for that culture). You could also consider that this has been a thing ever since the Neolithic Revolution; you could also consider that the Hong Kong flu of 1968 also killed a lot of people and the world continued to revolve around its axis. But the canned response? Vaccines will save us all – they will doubtless save some of us, but all of us? They will doubtless kill some us, too, as vaccines are wont to do.

This is just a list of some generic opinions which are commonplace across the Internet, which is to say the common space of public discourse today. I’m sure you can come up with plenty more examples if you care to reflect on the matter – which in my opinion, too few people do.

Of course, you may disagree. I’d be delighted to read your own opinion – if indeed it is your own.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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