Opinions

Thanks to Thadguy.com!

A while ago I wrote here about the question of 'taste' and what it meant. (I can't be bothered finding the link, if you're actually interested it'll be listed over there ------> somewhere in the archived posts).

The notion of opinion put in an appearance there too. But this is one that I find hugely interesting so I'm revisiting it in a slightly different way.

In my opinion.
Just my opinion.
That's just your opinion.

These are phrases that make the hairs go up on the back of my neck, like somebody is running their fingernails down a blackboard. There are a few ways they drive me nuts. Firstly they're always said by people who think they're actually being decent and saying common sense, calm and rational things. Who could argue that these are some of the fairest and most decent things you could say in a conversation? (Well I will, in a minute.) Secondly they're almost always used very early on in discussions these days, before anything has really even been discussed. So the discussion is shut down almost immediately. Thirdly they are so loaded with a meaning that I think is completely wrong that if you challenge the whole idea of opinion, you will very quickly find yourself mortally offending somebody.

Anyway, to why I think these phrases should be taken out somewhere, shot, burned and buried. If you tease apart the idea of opinion it's actually very simple, and you wonder why anybody ever believed in it. The basic idea behind opinion is that people have ideas about things, and if the ideas are ones they personally believe in, then those become their opinions. Nothing wrong with that.

Where it all starts to go terribly wrong is when people forget that there are two parts to an opinion, which they collapse into one part. There's the idea itself, about whatever, and then there's the person who likes or doesn't like that idea. So:

Opinion = idea about something + person who agrees with that idea

Where opinion tends to go horribly wrong is when the two parts on the right hand side of that bold equation get collapsed into one part. This happens when the person and the idea come to be thought of as (somehow) the one thing. So when somebody says 'that's just my opinion' or 'that's just your opinion', what they tend to mean is that the idea is somehow a deeply personal thing, for that person. And it can't therefore be wrong or right or challenged or made fun of or anything, because it's (again, in some mysterious way) somehow now part of them. It partly defines who they are. It's in some miraculous way now been woven into their actual DNA.

But that's completely wrong. The idea was never 'theirs' in the first place. An idea somebody has is never something they own. Hundreds, thousands or even millions of people will agree or disagree with the same idea, it's something that is shared and is separate to all of these people. It makes not one tiny bit of difference that this or that person believes the idea is right - the idea will still just be the idea, and open to anybody else to take up and agree with or disagree with. So when people get all hot under the collar if the ideas they happen to believe in get challenged, and say "hey, it's just my opinion, OK?!", they should get a good slap. Because it's not theirs. It's just a bloody idea, it has nothing to do with them at all. Who cares that they happen to agree or disagree with an idea? What does that have to do with anything? Either the idea is a good, more correct idea or it isn't, the fact that people attach themselves to an idea like barnacles doesn't make the slightest bit of difference to anything.

DH Lawrence always said a good family fights. They should argue. Why? Because it helps to teach people to separate ideas from people. Families are more likely to move on after even a heated argument, and after doing enough of this sort of thing they start to notice that all the things they've been arguing about actually aren't really things that define them as people, or their relationship to each other. No guarantees either, some families fight very badly. But the basic point stands, that very strong and even heated debate is a skill that has to be learned, because without that skill you'll go through life preciously assuming everything you believe is something that belongs to and defines you. That's why the ancient Greeks taught rhetoric, the art of argument, and made it a central part of their curriculum.

In the meantime I despair of making any progress in my campaign against opinion. Every time a good argument gets started people immediately retreat into their opinion one-liners, terrified that somebody might be offended. They find parliament appalling - why can't those people just be nice to each other? Pllllllease. That's where ideas get thrashed about, as ideas. Nothing would ever get done if they didn't. What would the opinion-lovers rather, that each person just be allowed to do whatever they like, according to the ideas they have? Imagine it. That would protect every species of idiot, pervert, evil bastard and dictator you could imagine, because how can you challenge any of them if each person's opinion is sacred? That's why politicians argue and argue and argue, and they absolutely bloody should be arguing. So the rest of us don't have to, as much. And why they often will have a drink together at the end of the day, and nobody has had their feelings hurt.

Despite the contempt people have for politicians, more than anybody else they understand ideas. They know they're not personal things, which is why they spend so much time arguing about them without any real malice at all.




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