Just my opinion

There is a disturbing trend developing in society. When confronted with a logically superior argument, one simply has to say: “Well, that’s my opinion.” The idea is that these simple words trump all other arguments. They entirely dismiss years of experience in the field, they disdainfully disregard relevant learning, they have the power to override logic. That one sentence is supposed, miraculously, to equalise cognitive functioning.

Now I have no problem with genuine stupidity. I do, however, have an issue with wilful ignorance. And “That’s my opinion” falls into the latter category. I understand that to some extent we all construct a reality to help us make sense of the seeming chaos of life, and I understand that by challenging a person’s paradigms, one is often challenging that person’s sense of security too. It is only natural to try to cling to what helps make the world make sense. I am sure I do it too. But I have learnt that it is a false security. As long as our pictures of the world and of God are erroneous, we make ourselves vulnerable to emotional and spiritual breakdown, when – as inevitably must happen, as life’s troubles find us – our illusions are dissolved by reality.

I also understand, and even believe, the prevailing postmodern philosophy that all human truth is subjective and relative. But the early Modernist thinkers were not advocating that because all human perception is a dream, that everybody should be complacent and comfortable in their individually constructed realities; they saw this paradigm as a prison, not as state to be desired. T.S. Eliot, Tennessee Williams, many of the painters – Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock – and even scientists, like Albert Einstein, regarded the willingness of people to resign themselves to the strictures of their subjective realities as a weakness, not as a strength. They advocated searching beyond what was comfortable and known; asking questions, not knowing answers. They would be horrified by how we have twisted their ideas to justify ignorance.

There is wisdom in understanding that we see the world as we are, not as it is. But this cannot be used to validate the hypothesis that therefore all perceptions are equally valid. They are not. The Buddha told a now much referenced story of blind men describing an elephant, and each one – having felt a different part of the elephant, constructing a different picture of what an elephant is. Where we misquote his story is that the Buddha’s conclusion was that they were all wrong, not equally right.

Our human limitations will always prevent us from knowing the truth fully. We will always only understand a part of the elephant. But that does not mean that we all know the elephant equally. One man, whether through experience, study, or simply a greater capacity for clear perception, may have a fuller picture of the elephant than others. It is quite possible for somebody – perhaps with the aid of hallucinogens, for example, or from a deep-seated psychological need to replace a long dead giraffe companion – to see a giraffe. It does not make the elephant a giraffe. Both men will have a flawed understanding of what constitutes an elephant, but one will certainly have a more reliable opinion.

We are all entitled to an opinion, certainly, but that entitlement does not automatically confer upon said opinion the right to be labelled intellectual, any more than the right to play the piano confers upon the musician the right to be considered equal to Mozart. Some opinions are just stupid.

Still, much as I am annoyed by the ignorance of the statement, it is the arrogance of it that really irks me. I become quite riled by the assumption implicit in: “That’s my opinion” that because both parties have opinions, they are equally valid. It takes enormous self-control to respond graciously when somebody dismisses one’s opinions without really listening, with a trite remark, and walks away, smugly believing that everybody is on equal intellectual footing.

It is, I suppose, not unexpected in a society that promotes the notion that whatever is good for the individual is inherently good, and where it not acceptable to be seen as intolerant of others. I am not suggesting that tolerance is problematic, rather that we need to challenge our definitions of what tolerance is. Tolerance is not saying that everything is equal and anything goes. This definition diminishes all perspectives by not recognising the uniqueness of each. It makes no attempt to understand the nuances of a perspective, the strengths and limitations it possesses, and has no interest in understanding what gives it credibility. Such “tolerance” actually refuses to listen; it is dismissive and rude, professing to value one’s opinion but unwilling to try to understand it;  but it does it with a smile so that you won’t notice. Rather, true tolerance is remaining respectful of another’s humanity despite the fact that one may profoundly disagree. Real tolerance actually engages meaningfully with opposing ideas and articulates its differences in a way that does not diminish the other party’s dignity.

And so, if a pupil in one of my classes, for example, challenges me on an interpretation of a poem, and accuses me of overthinking it, that pupil ought to consider the fact the my interpretation is based on extensive reading not only of that writer’s work, but of the leading literary critics’ opinions. That reading is supplemented by more years’ teaching experience than that pupil has been alive, and a favourable reputation among those in South African independent education. It’s an informed opinion. It is by no stretch of the imagination equivalent to an interpretation of a poem by a 17 year old, who has encountered maybe two dozen poems in the course of a lifetime, several of which have been published online by DarkAngel42, or a poet of similar literary standing. When I claim that my opinion is better, I am not being arrogant, I am not labelling that pupil as stupid or worthless, I am certainly not suggesting that he or she is not entitled to an opinion. I will listen respectfully to that opinion, incorporate what has merit into my own interpretation, and discard aspects of mine if another interpretation makes more sense. But I will also challenge what is illogical without deliberately trying to make anyone else feel humiliated. That is tolerance.

Sometimes we need to be humble enough to accept that others might actually know more. Just because one does not understand something, it does not does not mean that it does not make sense. But thinking is tough. It requires that one be prepared to sacrifice dearly held beliefs, (sometimes not-so-) latent prejudices, and occasionally shift worldviews. A little bit too much like hard work for a society where things are only given value if they are convenient and fun. Learning doesn’t fit that description. I suspect that true education is antithetical to human nature. Maybe as a race we are doomed never to truly learn and reach our potential. You don’t have to like it, but that’s my opinion.

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