Opinion is the medium between knowledge and ignorance. —Plato
“You’re never as smart as you think you are. There is always someone who knows more and understands better than you. Pay attention to those people.”
The words of my late father seem more applicable today than ever. I still remember sitting next to him as he warned me about opening my mouth too soon, a bad habit I’ve had since high school.
“Almost everyone knows at least one thing you don’t,” he warned. “Other people’s opinions may seem foolish and uninformed, but dismissing the well-considered opinions of those who are more experienced, study deeper, and have better access to information only shows your ignorance, not theirs.”
There are days I’m still not sure I’ve adequately learned that lesson. I’m careful about whose opinions I consider. “Consider the source,” is the advice that comes with much of what I read. Of the millions of opinions scattered across the Internet, most leave me skeptical of either their facts or their intentions.
Social media makes it easy to put ourselves in an echo chamber. If we don’t like what someone is saying, we can simply block them, ignoring everything they might have to say. Sometimes that act is necessary in order to avoid constant streams of drivel. When we block someone, though, simply because they have opinions contrary to ours we put our own level of understanding and knowledge at risk. We need the contrasting thought. We need friction against our own opinion.
Knowing Which Opinion To Trust
When one goes to apply for a new job, the prospective employer almost always asks for references. We choose those references based upon the assumption that those people say good things about us when asked. However, have you ever had a reference that wasn’t as positive about your skills as you’d hoped? Maybe you didn’t get the job because someone you trusted mentioned your perpetual habit of being late or not always following through on your promises. Perhaps they even lied.
One of the primary reasons we’ve come to disregard the opinions of others is because too often we find them self-serving, frequently uninformed, and too often void of any truth. The Internet has given everyone a voice, but not every voice needs to be heard on every topic. Does someone sitting in a basement in Queens really understand the political complexities of the ongoing war in Columbia? Can a person who barely managed to graduate high school actually hold a reasonable opinion on the economy?
The answer to both questions is yes, they can. The upside of the Internet is that it allows people to study things and obtain a level of knowledge without having to suffer through traditional means of education. A person who might have nearly flunked out of school because of bad grades in English and History might have a natural affinity for numbers and the nuances of economic theory. The basement dweller has the ability to reach out and talk directly to people on both sides of the equation in Columbia, side-stepping all the political protocols of the State Department. Look below superficial appearances and those opinions we’ve thrown away might actually have merit.
When An Opinion Really Matters
The second challenge of opinions is understanding whose opinion matters when. I could sit here all day and talk about feminism and women’s rights, but the value of my opinion on that topic is limited because I’m not female. I don’t have those experiences that women face on a regular basis, and cannot fully understand what they go through because no one is going to treat me as a female. The same applies to race. I hurt when I see the injustices levied against people of color, but when speaking on the matter my opinion is limited. I might know a lot about a topic, but if I can’t possibly experience what other people experience my opinion loses value.
A well-considered opinion is one that has had those experiences. I respect the opinions of Congressman John Lewis on matters of race because he has been there on the front lines. He felt the spray. He has the scars. Congressman Lewis understands the situation at a level I cannot begin to comprehend. I respect Kat’s opinion on matters of feminism and sexual identity because she has both feet in those arenas right now. She is enduring those experiences and deals with the challenges at a level I can never know for myself. The opinion of someone who has been there is always stronger than that of the person who merely observed.
Equally important, though, are the opinions of those who speak for those who would not be heard. Reporters and advocates for causes and regarding situations where those who endure the experience are not able to speak for themselves. Those who are hungry, homeless, beaten, torn from their homes, left with nothing. Those who go and look, who are hands-on in helping those in need, who immerse themselves in hostile situations, have opinions we need to trust.
Listening To The Chorus
Perhaps most important right now, in this political climate, is listening to the opinions of diverse people who agree on issues even when it does not necessarily serve them well. Climatologists, for example, did not quickly or easily support the concept of global warming. They have an understanding of weather cycles and know that some changes are inevitable. But as more of them take up the cause and warn of the dangers, theirs is a voice we do well to heed.
Perhaps the strongest chorus at the moment is that of newspaper editorial boards regarding the upcoming presidential elections. Most seasons, we expect their endorsements to follow along party lines. Conservative papers endorse the Republican candidate. Liberal papers endorse the Democratic candidate. Independent papers endorse a third party. For as long as I can remember, that has been how endorsements flow. There’s rarely any surprise.
That history does not hold true this season, though. Look at the aggregators and we see headlines like these:
There are dozens of others who have followed suit, newspaper editorial boards who understand the effect of politics on their readers better than anyone. When they all start leaning in the same direction, we need to listen.
We Don’t Know Much
We are fooling ourselves when we think that what we read in our social media newsfeeds constitutes being informed on a subject. Our ignorance runs much deeper than anyone cares to admit. Egos do a great job of making us believe that we’re smart enough, that we don’t need to listen to anyone else’s opinions. We can even find plenty of quotes urging us to ignore the detractors, be our own person, and stand up what we want.
We couldn’t be any more stupid than when we ignore the well-considered opinions of others. Especially right now.
Maybe we should do more than look at headlines as they pass. Perhaps we should give ourselves more time to actually read, and think about what we’re reading.
A well-considered opinion has value that cannot be matched by our own understanding. We would do well to close our own mouths more often and listen.