We all have opinions. They are part of what defines who you are. Your opinions sculpt the landscape of your individualism just as your looks separate you from the person standing next to you, and that guy, over there, and a good thing it is too.
If we all subscribed to exactly the same opinions, the world would be an unimaginably uninteresting place. Moreover, humans would have died out long ago. For much like the different paths of evolution that have led to us – homo sapiens – so too do differences in opinion lead to new discovery. I cannot begin to imagine the number of scientific, philosophical, and intellectual leaps that have been made spurred by nothing but a disagreement. Imagine if Nicolaus Copernicus had taken the Catholic church at it’s word and subscribed unquestioningly to their doctrine – we may still believe the earth to be the center of the (observable) universe. Aside from that assertion being so wrong as to necessitate the error being measured in parsecs, had Copernicus been complacent in accepting it, we – as human beings – would have missed out on the ripple effect caused by this one man’s willingness to risk his life to have a wholly different opinion to the accepted one.
Opinions, in short, are more important than people think they are – even to those of us who think they are very important indeed! Not only do they define who we are, drive us to critically examine the world around us, but they also provide for thoroughly interesting conversation which in turn helps people relate to each other, make friends, and even fall in love with the ‘right’ person. (for our current purpose we will blatantly ignore the appalling divorce statistics and my spectacularly unpopular opinions on that particular ball of wax)
Being in agreement with someone can be deeply satisfying, helps foster solidarity, and breeds peace and unity. Being of opposite minds meanwhile sparks discussion, conflict, new ideas, and advances us as a people. In other words, it does not matter if you have the same opinion, as long as you have one you possess all the necessary tools for joining in the debate.
Once said debate begins in earnest however and the stakes are high, things begin to fall apart. On a small scale that means my tremendously unpopular opinions have cost me my share of friends and girlfriends over the years, whilst on the macro scale we like to fight wars over differences of opinion like whether or not there is a divine being, and what we should call him (or her, as the case may very well turn out to be). That is where opinions get us in trouble. Not the opinions themselves mind – we all have them after all – but our obsessive need to have everyone subscribe to the same (preferably our own) opinion. In our 200,000 year history, not once have all people, everywhere, held all the same opinions, but in our infinite capacity for self-important arrogance that has not stopped us from trying to force our opinions onto others nonetheless.
It should be noted that we’ve actually become quite good at forcing our opinions onto others. For instance, if I am of the opinion you should give me your wallet, you will most likely disagree, but thanks to the 9mm automatic in my hand, I am reasonable certain you’ll come to see things my way post haste. You see, our opinions are for sale – susceptible as we are to coercion – whether it is for money, power, or the simple joy of having a robbery not turn into a murder. What is worse is that since time immemorial the fact that our opinions are for sale has been enthusiastically exploited to further political agendas, religious propagation, and – crucially – to make money.
Now, you may say, “My opinion is not for sale! I am my own person!” Of course you are, settle down, no one here is saying you are not a special, little snowflake, but take a moment to consider what is being supposed.
Celebrity endorsements are so common these days that our reaction to them is blasé. Yet, alarmingly to the discerning consumer in me, they perpetuate a dangerous precedent set long ago: pay someone enough money and they will say pretty much whatever you want them to. (or, in the case of women – and I am looking at you here Scarlett Johansson – they will show some skin and hug suggestively phallic champagne bottles) Advertisers know this, and the dividends show in the accounting office, and thus the world is run. If Oprah Winfrey says a book is worth reading then by God I am running to the store this instant to get it! Yes, our consumerism has been raised to a well-conditioned Pavlovian response. Lenin and Marx are rolling in their graves.
Still, even with our opinions readily for sale we find time to have our true opinions – our most valuable, most emphatic, most personally meaningful opinions. Aka: the shit we care about. No one is going to war over the brand of toothpaste their neighbor prefers, but mention a couple of the hot-button topics of this century (and centuries past for that matter) and the boys at the Pentagon start rolling out invasion plans for a dozen or so medium sized foreign sovereignties they think would be fun places for the 101st airborne to visit. This reaction is only natural – it is the natural, yet tragically overbearing extension of a defense mechanism in place in all of us to prevent being taken advantage of.
Thankfully there are other ways to disagree. Politics for instance are based on the stipulated fact that people (and countries) disagree about countless things, but let’s try not to kill each other over every single one. Indeed, let’s shake hands, have a cup of tea, and smile for a joint photo opportunity since fewer youngsters will have to be flown around the world to kill people they’ve never met in countries they’ve never heard of that way.
Thus discussion, debate, and great oratory are the virtuous means by which we shape our opinions. We support our opinions with fact, fiction, data, and conjecture, and at the end of the day we each go home believing what we believe, whether that is different from the assertions we woke up with that day or not.
Crucially, it is paramount to muster the supreme effort required to have some humility and accept that the world, the universe, and the physical laws that govern it, do not revolve around you, your opinion, or whether you are right or wrong. We all believe we are right – that is the essence of having an opinion – and more than a few of us are hesitant (if not down right stubbornly reluctant) in relinquishing our stance in an argument, but it is important to maintain perspective. Your argument, no matter how heated and thoroughly important to you at the time, is one argument, one difference of opinion, and one only. You have countless opinions, as do the people who disagree with you on this one issue. Perhaps they share some of your opinions on other matters. In fact, I guarantee that beneath the pride that prevents such people from acknowledging it, they absolutely do. I think we can all get on board with the idea that war is bad, and people should try not to kill each other, which is exactly why the US and the former Soviet Union never flipped the switches that would have taken us all back to the stone age; we agreed on nothing except that nuking each other into oblivion was bad. We agreed on that so perfectly that even the weight of all our differences (which, at the time, was pretty much everything else) could not motivate either side enough to give it a go with a preemptive strike. Sure, the two countries were not the best of friends at the time, and there were not a lot of joint resolutions being signed at the time for posterity, but neither did we allow our different opinions to destroy us all. We showed a surprising amount of restraint considering the foolish tantrums we as a species throw in daily life over the most trivial of matters, and – thanks to a half a century of hot, cold, and lukewarm warring – we made quite a few stunning technological advances, so there is an argument to be made that even the most radically different opinions can be equally meritorious if they lead us to greater wisdom in the end.
And that is the message here today; knowing that even in reading this you may not have agreed with some – or indeed quite a lot – of what I wrote, but you read it anyway. You read it, have an opinion, and if you are anything like me you know for a fact you are right. You are. Your opinion is yours alone and therefore you cannot be wrong. That is, you cannot be wrong until you close your heart and mind to revision of your opinions in light of new facts. You cannot be wrong unless your opinion also requires everyone else to subscribe to it as well – by force if necessary. You cannot be wrong in your opinions so long as at the end of the day you can muster the courage to accept that maybe tomorrow, maybe a week, or a year from now, you may need to alter an opinion slightly so as to account for the weight of all human knowledge, the vast experience of humanity as a whole, or just the simple truism you saw for the first time scribbled on a bathroom wall.
“All this worldly wisdom was once the unamiable heresy of some wise man.”
-Henry David Thoreau