Opinion paralysis as a social phenomenon

Posted on 16 April, 2017.

Hello

It has been a while since this space saw an update. This is partly because life has a habit of sweeping one along, and partly because of another phenomenon, which i will try to tease out a little bit. Suffice to say i’m still alive and probably not providing a net benefit to the globe.

The topic

If someone were to ask me, i would probably say that i’m quite an opinionated person. However, at the same time, by nature i am extremely confrontation-averse, and i have the impression that the more time progresses, the less likely i am to publicly take a stance if i think it may cause offence or be misaligned with whatever my audience happens to be1 (one can imagine that the more unknown and/or diverse the audience, the trickier it becomes: it follows that a medium such as this one where whatever one says is both permanently recorded and globally accessible has a chilling effect, to say the least – wouldn’t want those hypothetical grandchildren to read this now would we). This could lead to the perception that i am not, in fact, opinionated.

Perhaps, and here i am being extremely charitable to myself (a dangerous pastime, usually), this is on account of awareness and empathy for a broader range of human experiences than i had at some undefined previous time. However, it might also simply be for fear of causing socially awkward situations or being shown up to be “wrong”, whatever that may mean. Saving face, basically. This is, i believe, a rather cowardly position to take. In particular, if nobody put themselves out there and took a stance on a subject, it is unclear how discourse of any kind would advance. (Assuming, of course, that this currently happens at all. One can only wonder.)

Often, on topics i care quite deeply about, i will be reticent to take on a particular stance, especially if the discussion is of a political nature (in the broadest possible sense: this includes government but also intersectional feminism). Partly because in spite of my best efforts i remain AMAB/white, which makes me think there are probably already enough of us whining and opining (what is really the difference, i hear you ask) about Things In General that i feel the world wouldn’t necessarily be a richer place for my voice in the fray. But also because i am afraid of being on the wrong side of whatever debate: hindsight has a nasty way of showing up even some of the most best-intentioned people to be bigots.2 Practising science, i found this to be less difficult: ideally, one would float an idea, do the legwork to see if it held water, and if not then at the very least all involved had learned a lesson. Somehow, outside of the arena of testable/truths, it all becomes a lot more loaded, fraught. Reputations are risked and relationships strained. As if by being ignorant, one can somehow be cast off as a lost cause.

One needs to pick apart why, if at all, we should decide to behave one way or another, whether openly stating one’s opinions and risking being inflammatory, or on the other hand being extremely circumspect in all situations and risking seeming anodyne, even if one perhaps has an extremely lively and engaged inner life (which, if we continue to be charitable to our struggling author, is presumably the case). There seems to be no normative reason why one approach or the other should be preferable; it seems to hinge on whether one seeks confrontation (of dubious merit) and the opportunity for a constructive discussion (the bright side) with someone who holds a differing opinion (which might lead to the edification of both, if undertaken respectfully) or on the other hand prefers to calmly listen to the opinions around them and ruminate in private, forming their opinions in their own time and space (which assumes, of course, that one even worries about these things: perhaps people do, in fact, exist who just have and hold and discard their opinions, publicly or not, without caring much what others think of them and who they potentially offend). I certainly gravitate toward the latter.

It is time to admit that this is, unfortunately, a privileged position to take. One does not always have the luxury of hearing a diverse – and potentially offensive – range of opinions, without calling out perceived injustice.3 In such cases i would not argue for non-confrontational ruminating, but hopefully these are corner cases in the space of social interactions one has on a day-to-day basis (another privileged assumption).

In which i rationalise

If anything, i rail against the perception that someone who isn’t excessively brash or forward with their opinions should be conflated with someone who is somehow without opinions, or (shock! horror! the embarrassment!) intellectually lazy. Lacking in courage, perhaps yes; but even that i question. If it is true that the more we learn, the more we come to understand that we know nothing, what accusation can we then level against someone who is open to listen to the ideas and opinions of others, through which they then filter their own world-view? Of course, if one is acting in bad faith and simply nodding while secretly judging their interlocutor, some accusations can probably be levelled. However, that example violates the presupposition that our hypothetical listener will actually make an honest effort to compare the world-view as explained to them with their own, think about similarities and differences, and potentially update and enrich their understanding of the world accordingly.

I don’t know if i’d go so far as to unequivocally hail non-confrontational observers as exemplary, but at the very least i do believe there is a place for them in this world of loud talkers. How they should subsequently engender positive change in the world is another discussion entirely, but presumably it is impossible for everyone to be a leader simultaneously. Perhaps a fertile subject for a future rant.

Exeunt

This rambling should not be taken as anything other than a disgustingly indulgent public musing on learning to accept my own non-confrontational nature in the face of perceived social pressure to “have an opinion” and “be interesting”. It is, appropriately, a bit of an exercise in throwing stuff out there and trying not to worry too hard about what people might think. Presumably, people that care enough would take the trouble to enunciate why they take offence at what i do or say (comments welcome! Email me!), and explain how i might in future do better. The friends i know and care about certainly would, which is why they are dear to me.

Have a nice day, everyone.


  1. Within reason, of course. I would not agree with an overtly racist statement someone might make, for example. Exactly how to proceed is of course a difficult question. Ethics dictate that the statement should be called out, although i would probably avoid a polarising personal attack in the hope that by asking questions and pointing out where i disagree i might perhaps nudge the statement-maker towards more a more inclusive/egalitarian world-view. This is likely a good moment to check my privilege as someone not belonging to a marginalised group. Hopefully it is acceptable to use that privilege to enter into aforementioned discussion.

  2. Viskontas, Indre and Mooney, Chris (2014, May). The Science of Your Racist Brain. Mother Jones, online.

  3. Newkirk, Vann R., II (2016, December). Sometimes There Are More Important Goals Than Civility. The Atlantic, online.


If you feel inclined to read further, i have rambled on other subjects, too.

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