Wednesday, June 18, 2014

How to Have an Opinion

The advent and development of the Internet as we know it today has irrevocably revolutionized our world.

I begin with this rather obvious statement because I want you to consider its truth.  The Internet HAS revolutionized our world in countless ways--some good, some bad, some neutral, and some that can go either way.  I want you to stew with me on one of those "it could go either way" ideas for a moment.

One can find many things on the Internet.  In recent months, I have come across something that is almost as ubiquitous on the Internet as the selfie and that might even be connected to the selfie in some Freudian, sub-conscious sort of way.  I am referring to opinions.  There is no shortage of opinions to be found on the web.  One can find them in the tweets, posts, articles, and comments of the smartest and most celebrated among us, in those of your "average Joe" and, more often than not, in the online ramblings of someone simply referred to as "anonymous."  Opinion is alive, well, and circulating freely on the fiber optic cables that make up our virtual landscape.  The "information superhighway" (remember when it was called that?) has provided just about any person on earth with the capability to voice their opinion and make it available for anyone else to consider. (Take this blog as a case in point.)  This may be a good thing.  Or, it may be a really, really bad thing.

Consider this.

What one cannot find quite as easily on the Internet as opinions is respect, courtesy, deference, and genuine, healthy dialogue or debate about those opinions.  Many of the opinions offered online are structured and promoted in such a way that they create strife, resentment, and isolation.  They are a platform for aggrandizement of self and belittlement of others.  They degenerate into a rhetorical game of chicken rather than serving as a sincere search for truth.  I stand among the accused on this particular point.  I have never had much difficulty offering my opinion--particularly behind the shield of a computer screen.  Unfortunately, I have crossed the proverbial line on several occasions--even to the point of losing friends in the Facebook sense of the word.  It strikes me that most people don't need to be taught to form opinions.  We seem to be hardwired to do so.  I wonder, however, if we could all use some lessons/reminders about how to have our opinions.  That is--about how to hold them and about how to offer them for others to consider.

To that end, I would like to offer some basic guidelines.  These are, of course, just my opinion, so please take them as such.

1.  Remember the source and progression of opinions.

Whenever I watch a movie that deals with racial inequality and bigotry, I end up asking myself the same, penetrating question, "What would I have believed and how would I have acted if I lived in the 1860's or even the 1960's?"  Of course, I want to believe that I would have been enlightened and progressive in my thinking.  I want to believe that I would never have succumbed to the ugliness of racism.  I am haunted by the fact, however, that it is probable, had I been born several decades or more earlier than I was, that I would have adhered to the racial creeds of the day.  That is, I probably would have been a bigot.  This is just a simple calculation based on the color of my skin and the social status of my family tree.  I don't like that thought, but I cannot categorically deny it either.

My point is that our systems of belief (our opinions) are, to a significant extent, the product of our cultural context--our upbringing, our social status, our circle of friends, etc...  Of course, everyone wants to believe that their opinions are well-grounded, logically sound, and devoid of any sentimental attachment.  We want to believe that we believe what we believe because it is the truth.  In some cases, this is an accurate assessment.  In many cases, however, we believe what we believe for reasons that are far less pristine and rational.  This doesn't necessarily mean your beliefs are wrong.  It does mean that it is incumbent upon all of us to remember the source of our opinions and of those we encounter.  Everyone has a story, and opinions are intricately intertwined in the details of that story as it unfolds.

Speaking of unfolding stories, it is also essential to remember that opinions are like bodies.  They grow, mature, strengthen, weaken, and change dramatically over the years.  You haven't always thought the way you think now, and you probably won't think exactly the same way in 20 years that you do now.  (At least, I hope you don't.)  We all would do well to remember this in our interactions with others and their ideas.

2.  Remember to separate the opinion from the one holding it.

This may sound contradictory to my first point.  I just got through telling you to remember that our opinions are closely aligned with who we are.  This is true.  It is also true, however, that we must evaluate the veracity of an opinion based on the merits of the opinion itself and not based on the person who is offering it.  To put this another way--if something is true, it is true regardless of who says it or supports it.  Once again, we all want to believe that we disagree with someone else because they are wrong.  Could it be, however, that sometimes we disagree with them because we just don't like them?  There are few things in life that are more irritating than when someone we consider to be from "the other side" offers an idea that makes logical sense and adds up in our mind.  It is difficult to admit it when our nemesis is right, but this we must do.

I believe that many followers of Jesus and right-wing conservatives encounter this difficulty in discussions of politics.  "Obama Bashing" has become quite fashionable in these circles, and I see it nearly every day on my Facebook feed.  I will concede the point that many of his policies and decisions (in my opinion) are unwise and counter-productive.  I don't like his politics.  I do not believe, however, that "everything that man says is a lie" or that every action his administration has taken or will take is wrong.  Is the right side of the field (or the left for that matter) intellectually honest enough to admit that even a broken clock is right twice a day?  (Although according to comedian Stephen Wright scientists are working on a broken clock that is right three times a day.)

3.  Remember that there is a right way to be right.

I am finding myself becoming more distant from and disillusioned by professional sports.  My concern is not with the talent or level of play in our professional leagues.  In many sports, these are at the highest level they have ever been.  My concern is that I am seeing far less grace and sportsmanship than I used to.  (That makes me sound so old!)  Even my beloved game of college basketball seems to have slipped into the mire of arrogant chest-thumping and trash-talking.  I don't like it.  I don't like it at all.  I'm not sure that the old adage is true that says, "It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game that matters."  No, I believe it is important to play to win, but even in your pursuit of victory and excellence, I believe it is essential to win honorably and gracefully.  I just don't see a lot of this on ESPN these days.

In our online or in-person discussions, let us all remember that you can be right but in a way that is wrong.  Strive for grace and sportsmanship when you spar with others in the comments section of your favorite blog or virtual water cooler.  Spirited debate should not and does not preclude the possibility of civility and respect.  Play to win, but win with style.

4.  Remember to admit the possibility that you might be wrong.

Of all the opinions I am offering in this article, this is the one that I fear may elicit the most disagreement.  Personally, I believe it is essential in any conflict of ideas (no matter how major) to admit and accept the possibility (however slim it may be) that you might be on the wrong side.  I am not implying that one should harbor doubts about her position.  I am not asserting that one should hold his beliefs weakly or in a perpetual state of flux.  I am not proposing a relativistic, post-modern ideal in which every opinion is equally true.  That, of course, is preposterous.  In just about any debate, there is a wrong side and a right side.  (Although the point should be made that it is foolish to make the reductionist "either-or" error.  Many of us need to open ourselves to the possibility of "both-and" in many of our discussions.)

What I am saying is that it is critical for us as fallen, finite beings to admit at least the possibility that we might be wrong.  Why is it critical?  Because, the fact is, we might be wrong.  If one gets to a point where they feel that at least some of their opinions are infallible, that person has placed himself in a position of stunted growth--both personally and relationally.  The opportunity for productive, healthy dialogue evaporates the moment someone says, "I am right and there is no possibility otherwise!"  Personally, I make a habit of disengaging with anyone who cannot admit the possibility of error in a certain opinion.  Why waste my time or theirs?  It's pointless to move any further in the discussion.

I think this is especially important for my fellow followers of Jesus to consider.  The fact that I believe the Bible to be infallible does not imply that I as a student of the Bible am also infallible.  Yet, this is exactly how Christians often come across to each other and to those outside our faith.  Remember that it is our faith not our knowledge that forms the basis of our religious system and our relationship with God.  I don't know that God is not dead.  I don't know that heaven is for real.  I don't know that Jesus is alive.  I believe each of those things, but I don't know them.  For the record, I feel that my belief is well-founded, but it is still only belief.  The atheists, the Hindus, or anyone else might be right.  I might be wrong.  To deny this possibility is to deny the nature of our worldview and to exclude the possibility of connecting with and genuinely impacting those who don't share our beliefs.


The next time you begin to launch into an online tirade about your favorite soap-box topic, will you take a moment to consider the ideas I've offered here?  I hope that you will.  I believe there is much truth to what I've said in these paragraphs.

But I might be wrong...