3 August 2014

Opinion piece

There is a line I encountered at school, and have always remembered, from the Roman playwright known as Terence: nihil ad me attinet, “it does not concern me at all”.

The Latin has a pleasing concinnity and the idea it expresses is worthy of reflection. In an increasingly opinionated world, having no opinion on a tendentious subject is a difficult position to maintain. It is the only honest position if you have no direct knowledge of the subject in question. A corollary is that you should be wary of what you read and hear (even when editorial bias is not obvious). Ask first “cui bono?” and then wonder where the money leads.

But what if you do have direct knowledge and that knowledge is so detailed that you can speak with authority? This, the obverse of happy ignorance, is, for a thinker, even more lethal to a firm opinion. Dostoevsky says (Notes from Underground, 1.5) “ ... the direct, immediate, legitimate fruit of heightened consciousness is inertia, that is, the deliberate refusal to do anything.” The French proverb “to understand all is to forgive all” implies much the same thing. The more you know about something, the less you realize you are entitled to adopt a stance on it.

Violent opinions are expressed either by the unthinking or by those with an axe to grind. Somebody living one of Socrates’s unexamined lives looks no further than the opinions he has absorbed ready-made. In discourse with others with a similar background, his opinions are reinforced and gradually assume the properties of prejudice, so that if evidence contrary to his beliefs is adduced he will reject it. He wants you to believe as he does because your agreement helps confirm that he is right.

The unthinking are manipulated and reprogrammed by more informed and crafty people, people with an agenda (usually political or financial, or both). The intellectuals of the Frankfurt School are one such group, and they have had spectacular success in moulding opinion. Or we may cite the way Edward Bernays harnessed Freudian theory to pioneer the techniques of public relations to which so much of our commerce and polity has become thrall.

This post too expresses an opinion. Am I grinding an axe? Perhaps. Clearly, I want your agreement or constructive disagreement. Then there is the effect that the piece might have on your opinion of me. With luck you will think me a clever fellow; equally my references to Terence, Socrates and Dostoevsky might not flatter you at all, but make you decide I am nothing but an elitist and a show-off.

Or it may simply be that the idea for this piece has been long gestating and I was suddenly taken by the impulse to give it form.


CS McClellan/Catana said...

Even when uninvited, people will do their best to interpret your words however suits them. And in my experience, trying to correct them just mires you deeper in a fruitless argument. I was going to say "discussion," but such discussions always turn into arguments.

Anonymous said...

That explains it succinctly: the more I know about certain things, the more I can see that all sides of the argument have some validity, and the more paralyzed I become.

And yet, I have strong opinions on many things that I believe are the result of reflection.

Fiction is a perfect outlet for this paralysis: I get to say that both opinions on a subject have merit, but one invariably results in a better outcome for a character than the other. No paralysis in my characters when they choose what I consider right or wrong (though it can take a while for good to prevail). Paralysis + optimism - if I had to describe myself as a writer.

I'm glad you gave in to the impulse.