Our becoming emotionally wedded to our opinions mutates them into indisputable facts. That’s when they become dangerous. When our beliefs possess our feelings and we cement them as truth, we start to exclude, judge or dismiss the beliefs of others. Undue feelings of superiority take hold. And in that condition, it’s impossible for actual truths—even provable, scientific ones—to get in.Partrick King
If Patrick King is right then opinions readily become ‘facts’ even without proof. When we are invested through a feeling our minds and hearts begin to narrow our world view and make it our immutable own. We start to believe our own thoughts, notorious for their flights of fancy, and consolidate them into our truths. Add to this any number of powerful forces in the modern world that play with our emotions, tapping into and sometimes mutating our core beliefs to fill us up with rigidity. We become closed and, as my own therapist tells me, judgemental and negative. Ouch.
If even half of this is true, we have a serious problem on our hands.
When opinions solidify into cement they corral us into like-minded groups creating the steel reinforcement for the concrete. The really important awareness and empathy suffer and limit our connections to other people. Ouch again.
Before the sky falls in, let’s back up a little.
Opinion is defined as “a view or judgement formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge”. We all have them because we use judgements to help us navigate our lives.
It helps not to have to think things through from first principles all the time for that would be tedious and inefficient. We need the thinking space saved for emergencies. And if there are no crises to resolve, then thinking can be used for creative outlets. Not having to think until we want to is powerful support for opinions.
Facts are defined as things that are known to be consistent with objective reality and can be proven to be true with evidence. In other words, they are objective.
Facts come from a logical process of proof that the proposition (or belief) is true or valid. This involves observation or the creation of information through an agreed process that goes beyond the individual and is repeatable. It should also be agreed that the logic process and the information reflects reality. This is all a bit technical and not touchy-feely at all, far more Mr Spock than Captain Kirk. Most people would rather be Kirk than Spock.
Given these definitions, we can see that opinion is easy to come by for all we have to do is attach to our core and run with what it tells us. Facts are much harder to grasp for we must understand the logic process that generates them in order to accept them as proven and following this logic is hard work.
As far as our minds are concerned, opinion is easy, facts are hard.
There is an evolutionary advantage to the easier, lower-risk path. So it should be no surprise that judgements that are easier to come by and yet are still useful will persist.
This makes the first premise, of mutation of emotion into facts, logical even likely, especially for the pleasant feelings; such as being above average for example.
If they continue to work for us then their persistence makes sense too. The reinforcement of the good vibes that this brings will make the next premise likely too… “we start to exclude, judge or dismiss the beliefs of others.” This is the genesis of dogma. Fine when it is mutually beneficial (conservation of elephants is fine aspiration) and not so good when it is not (my religion is better than yours, in fact, yours sucks). This is bad enough for it creates any number of opportunities for conflict as people join their tribes and disagree with the opinions of other tribes.
The final premise is the one that really matters. Excluding others and feeling superior make it… impossible for actual truths—even provable, scientific ones—to get in. In other words, our opinions become very hard to change even when the evidence is strong that they are wrong or nonsensical.
As a scientist this is challenging. It is already difficult to explain scientific facts to the non-scientist who is not familiar with the logic revolutions of the renaissance or the technical details of your subject. They believe your white lab coat more than your statistical explanation. If we are also up against an evolutionary pressure — the easiest path will lead the genes along it — then we are in serious strife.
Donald, on the other hand, is laughing.
I am fortunate enough to live in one of the world’s great modern cities, Sydney, Australia.
There is every amenity you could ever need, a true diaspora of food and culture, and as cities go, Sydney is stunningly beautiful. It is even trying its best to gather up some history. Visitors pile in from all around the world and they love it.
The day before the Vivid festival of light and delight, it was date night. I went with my wife – shame on you to think otherwise – to the theatre. We were both left open-mouthed at Still Point Turning, a beautifully written bio-play of courage and fragility performed with great skill and compassion. It was fantastic. Even if you can’t get to see a production, read the play. It will be worth the effort.
On the way, we stopped for dinner at our newly crowned ‘best Italian eatery’ and blew our wheat quota on proper pizza. Yum.
Walking to the theatre, a gas-powered bus pulled up at the kerb, beeped and announced that “the mobility ramp is in use”. An array of respectful youngsters waited their turn before moving off into the night.
It was easy to feel blessed. Almost pinch-worthy just to be sure it was not all a delightful dream.
The next morning I had a meeting in the city and tuned into the ABC morning radio en route to the train station. The NSW state opposition leader Luke Foley was crapping on about the need for infrastructure for refugees. I use this term because he was having a whinge, using a minority to make his point and by doing so crossing the line into racism. He sounded like a total tool and it was shameful.
I turned off the radio.
As I write this post on the train that is comfortable and running on time, reflecting on delight and disgust, it seems that no matter how much good there is and how much of it there is too take in with all your senses buzzing, there has to be the opposite.
There will be someone, sometimes myself, finding as much bad stuff as is humanly possible. It is the human condition.
My advice is to drown in the good stuff when you feel it.
Let the warm feelings seep deep into your bones and let them glue themselves into the matrix of your being so that when the morning comes and reality brings the opposite to attack you, there is a defence, a barrier that you can retreat behind and smile.
Then do the right thing and don’t vote tools into office.
Richard Flanagan is just one of many thinkers whose work explores rational meaning. Flanagan worries for our collective future. Alloporus has pointed out this out before in a little gem from Flanagan on Australia and now there is another piece on the erosion of rational meaning as it is swamped by a rising tide of vitriol.
This is the world we live in.
Whatever you say in public, in a post, an email, quietly to your dog as you let him off the leash in the park, it’s all fair game for comment and critique.
It is as though opinion (check the definition below) is no longer allowed even though it is just mine, can be completely off the wall with no truth to it whatsoever or is grounded in experience and knowledge. It matters not. Opinion is open to ridicule as soon as you express it.
The thing is its an opinion people. Get over it.
Opinion “a view or judgement formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge”
Now I am not proposing that opinions go unchallenged. Not at all. Failure in challenges to the opinions of the likes of Genghis Khan, Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini resulted in some of the most trying periods in human history. The problem is how we go about it.
We know that modern media gives everyone visibility but also anonymity that allows folk to unleash their inner Ghengis on a whim. What Richard Flanagan is worried about is how much this is leaking into places it shouldn’t. It’s attacking the floorboards of our intellectual thought and weakening our capacity for rational meaning.
Just the other day in an email update to colleagues I made a comment about the deepening drought in NSW. The exact phrase was…
And it will rain again. It always does.
Perhaps this is insensitive. Perhaps it is the truth. It was not intended to be anything more than a statement of fact that was hopeful. The rain will return and the challenging conditions for the farmers and rural people of eastern Australia will ease.
This was not how people saw it. I was a stupid city slicker with no idea of how tough it is to feed the sheep from the back of a truck on your weekends and still fear for the survival of the sheep and your business.
Does this mean I must think not twice, but many times before I write anything? Should the words be censored for every ounce of judgement even when the facts are irrefutable? ‘It will rain again, it always does’ is not even an opinion. It is rational and it has meaning.
Instead, I could have gone full bore toward the stark truth that some farms will fail in the harshness that is the Australian weather as Ross Gittins did in a Sydney Morning Herald editorial saying that our concern about the drought isn’t fair dinkum.
I hope that I will be this brave but I know from each small experience that what is being said about what writers write will affect what they write next. It has too. For it is human nature to be affected by the opinion of others. And online there are no referees so chances are that the writer will be personally attacked.
So here is the thought on rational meaning…
What about for every post or comment you leave that is negative towards another’s opinion, how about you leave another comment somewhere else that supports a writer.
Just say “thanks for bringing that thought to my attention” even if it’s an opinion you don’t share.
Maybe if we even out the vitriol a bit we might create some space and time for intellectual thought and in turn, create some ideas that are good for everyone.