Friday, December 12, 2003

Yes, Everybody Has One…

"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

- Voltaire

Stephen Bayley, author of A Dictionary of Idiocy, recently wrote in The Telegraph, "I love opinions so much, I keep on having more of them." All of us have heard the disparaging cliché, "opinions are like assholes, everybody has one," which is usually issued as a form of dismissal. These are two views on one of the most human of all activities – or, at least, since we acquired language - forming opinions.

I am inclined to agree with Bayley on this. I, too, love opinions and I am not afraid to express them in most situations. But, in the timorous, sanitized PC worldview, giving voice to opinions is a suspect activity, unless you are, to use one of their favorite phrases, in compliance. Therein lies the problem. The best opinions are often disturbing, fly in the face of conventional wisdom, and well, cause those who hold more dogmatic views to squirm in their seats. I find it dismaying, to say the least, that holding opinions, however well informed they might be, to be a term of approbation; "Oh you're so opinionated!" As if denying the critical judgment any thinking person should be favorably disposed was something for which to be ashamed.

A girlfriend once berated me for my "strong" opinions and my annoying habit of expressing them anywhere and at anytime. It seems I had offended or made uncomfortable several of her friends at a party we had attended. Several weeks later, when another invitation was extended, they insisted that I accompany her. Apparently, a number of them found my "outspokenness" to be stimulating and wanted another opportunity to explore and debate some of the points I had made. Assuredly, I took no small amount of delight in pointing this out to her.

In a theocratic, authoritarian, or totalitarian society there is little use for opinions. A medieval monk in his abbey or a contemporary mullah in his mosque and, indeed, a storm trooper in Hitler's Germany or a Stalinist commissar, had little use for original opinions. The collective opinions of religion or political ideology are inflexible dogma, not interesting expressions of private thought. The groupthink of an Orwellian dystopia comes to mind. The best opinions are contrarian, not conformist, although that is in itself a matter of opinion.

In retrospect, I relish the contradictory nature of my own upbringing (although it did not seem like much fun at the time), where my rigid pre-Vatican II Catholic education often came into conflict with the somewhat loopy, argumentative, and combative Irish family I was raised in. The Irish have a rather large reputation for their oratorical and rhetorical skills as summed up in the expressions; "He has the gift of the gab" or more simply put, "he's full of blarney." My family had it in spades. Opinions, of course, were held with steadfast conviction (or until you found yourself in agreement with your opponent, and then you promptly switched sides!). My father who was the ringmaster (and primary provocateur) of these verbal gladiatorial battles, would often remark to his friends that his children "would rather fight than eat" with a lump of pride in his throat.

Later, when I attended university, I joined a very fashionable wing of leftist politics, which I now refer to as that "great lowing herd of radicals" where creative, original thought was held in as much esteem as Richard Nixon. In short order, I was to prove to be as poor a socialist as I was a Catholic. In recent years, a number of people have entreated me to become a "conservative" or active in the Republican Party. What ever for? That I might show how I would make an outstandingly bad conservative Republican as well? The Vietnam era poet, Robert Barth, once told me he belonged to an "anarchist party of one". That sounds like a party where I might feel welcome.

So, what in the end separates those who hold strong opinions and bigoted yahoo? The literary critic, George Steiner, in addressing the limp, multicultural relativists who inhabit universities everywhere, said: "The difference between the judgment of a great critic and that of a semi-literate censorious fool lies in its range of inferred or cited reference, in the lucidity and rhetorical strength of articulation or in the accidental addendum which is that of a critic who is a creator in his own right."

Also, it is important that one be flexible enough to revise, reevaluate, and sometimes discard those opinions that no longer work, especially in the light of factual evidence no matter how much you do not like it. Jonathan Swift, a holder of considerable opinion in his right, weighed in on this matter nearly three hundred years ago: "The latter part of a wise person's life is occupied with curing the follies, prejudices and false opinions they contracted earlier."

So what do you do the next time you are tempted to throw a rock into the ripple-free pond of consensus? Well, chuck away! Wittgenstein believed that if people never did stupid things, nothing intelligent would ever happen. Opinions, even the bad ones, make you think, or to be a little less charitable, make you a little less stupid.


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