A few weeks ago, I listened to a podcast where Malcolm Gladwell describes the many serious health risks of American football, comparing its concussed and battered players to coal miners in the nineteenth century. The podcast was illuminating; his argument was strong; I was convinced. If high school and college football in its current form ceased to exist tomorrow, I wouldn’t miss it.
But, of course I wouldn’t miss it. I’ve never cared about football. I don’t watch it, I don’t go to games, no one in my family plays. I also don’t have authority over anything remotely related to football, let alone its reform or abolition. My opinion about this topic was easily formed for precisely the same reasons that my opinion really doesn’t matter.
I am absolutely brimming with opinions. They’re always evolving, responding to new information or a compelling counter-argument. This can drive some of the people in my life crazy. I might argue an opinion just to try it on for size, and then switch course half-way through when I hit on a point I like better.
Some of my opinions are based in personal experience and research (PSA—cutting aid to Central America is cruel, short-sighted and self-defeating! Please tell your representatives!). Other opinions are vaguer, with the goal defined but no real plan how to get there. I want action on climate change! I want to watch movies where women talk to each other! I want accessible public transportation and equitable public schools and for websites to stop asking for my personal information! Can anyone tell me… how?
It’s this second category I don’t know what to do with. If talk is cheap, opinions are almost worthless. We are glutted with opinions nowadays, skimming online through hundreds and thousands of hot takes and counter-takes like some sort of cyber whale filtering krill, until we can’t even remember who said what, in what context, in what publication, and we can no longer separate our own opinions from something clever someone said on Twitter.
It’s certainly easier when you let someone else tell you what to think. I was spellbound by Jordan Peele’s Us but couldn’t explain why until I’d read a half-dozen reviews and a thread of fan theories. I just had a full-fledged discussion about Sunday’s Game of Thrones episode even though I haven’t watched the show in three years and rely on online recaps and tweet compilations to keep me up to date. And that’s just pop culture! How many “insightful” comments about politics or social issues have I made that are really just regurgitations of something I forgot I read somewhere else?
I think this is a problem. It seems impossible to act on all the things that the global news cycle tells us we should care about, so I might be quick to spout off an opinion, but stall when it comes time to defend it, and fail completely to turn opinion into action. If I can’t do anything about it, does my opinion about football—or cyber-security or public education or offshore drilling—really matter?
What do I do with all these opinions? I want them to be more than something pulled out of a hat at the cleverer sort of parties, explored, and quickly abandoned with the counter-arguments get too strong. Opinions will be less cheap only when there is real conviction behind them, and when they’re cemented by actions into beliefs.
If I can’t take an opinion so seriously, it might be time to hold it more loosely. In an age where everyone is an armchair expert on everything, it seems both brave and vulnerable to admit that there are something things we simply don’t know.
Whether it’s criminal justice reform or the war on Syria or abortion or the theology of Hell, maybe the best posture isn’t to repeat the last talking point we read or hold forth blindly without really listening, but to say simply: I don’t know yet.
I hear a lot of opinions about this, but I want to listen to those who are directly affected, or to those who spend their lives studying this.
I don’t want to assume that the solution is obvious.
I don’t know exactly what I think about this issue, but I know it’s important and I’m committed to learning more.
Katerina Parsons (’15) lives in Washington D.C., where she works in advocacy at Mennonite Central Committee’s Washington office and studies international development at American University’s School of International Service. She spends a lot of time thinking about US policy towards Central America and North Korea, writing, singing, and searching for the city’s best pupusas (suggestions welcome).