By Shelley Xu
My mom hates it when I respond, “I don’t know.” Absolutely despises it. She chides me alternately as being uninformed and unmotivated. I must have an opinion, she insists. I should be able to arbitrate two sides and determine who’s right, acting as some sort of tiebreaker, for some unfathomable reason. This mentality isn’t unique to my mom, though – we’re taught that expressing our views, taking a stand and articulating our beliefs is a crucial component of being a well-rounded individual.
Sure, sometimes not having an opinion is an excuse to be intellectually lazy, to not think critically about the issues, and to vacillate. More so, sometimes forming a well-considered opinion is critical to acting decisively, and is far better than ponderously weighing all the possible options and all possible courses of actions, which is debilitating. I gaze with envy at those people who always know their answer, and whose explanations of their opinions always makes perfect, rational sense. However, these are the select few. For those who lack the preparedness and intellectual dexterity, this aspiration to seem knowledgeable is too often taken in the wrong direction.
Articulating a belief after researching both sides of an issue, weighing the pros and cons, and most importantly, being able to justify the belief without falling prey to any logical fallacies, is commendable. Laudable, even. Unfortunately, for most people, having an opinion is little more than projecting an instinctive reaction, based on a limited understanding of the event and a desire to signal to their peers that they ostensibly care about the issue at hand. This rapid-fire opinionating has had negative effects on society, most obviously observable in our political system.
In many cases, decisiveness transforms into stubbornness. Having chosen a side, a wide variety of very intelligent people seem unable to simply say, “I was wrong”. They will defend their belief to the very end, mortally afraid of being discredited or labeled a “flip-flopper”, and they almost convince themselves that they are right. People will select an opinion arbitrarily based upon the majority sentiment, peer pressure, their parents, their professors – without personal investment – and adopt it as their own.
They will integrate it into their lives so seamlessly that they’ve convinced themselves that this is what they’ve always believed. And they become invested and refuse to credibly listen to other points. Confirmation bias, the tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs or hypotheses, runs rampant, and intelligent debate rapidly devolves into childish squabbling, with both sides having renounced any possibility of finding common ground or a possibility of agreement.
If this paradigm sounds familiar, it might be because this is the hole in which Congress has dug itself into in recent years – an overbearing and unjustified belief in the sanctity of one’s opinions have led to a lack of moderation and the inability to see the sense in the opposing side’s own ideology. No political party has a monopoly on the truth, or on what is effective for governance and policy, and yet political compromise gets shoved aside as uncompromising beliefs take center stage and the ideological spectrum widens, with more and more politicians clustering at its extremities.
Far from encouraging critical thought, having an opinion is often, paradoxically, the easy way out. Remaining in the political sphere, identifying as a “Republican” or a “Democrat” does more than just limit the primaries in which a person can vote – it is also a way of supplying ready-made, homogenized opinions to the masses. In some ways, this helps our political system function. In other ways, it’s extremely debilitating, because people don’t have to think about the incredible amount of nuance lost somewhere in between the elephant and the donkey.
Thus, saying “I don’t know” for me isn’t a cop-out. For me, it’s okay to not have an opinion – even more blasphemous, it’s okay to agree with both sides of an issue. Any well-worked policy, action or decision will have to be inclusive towards the sentiments it addresses, and being able to navigate the myriad of opinions is necessary for success.
This isn’t a plea to become apathetic, to disengage ourselves from expressing our values and our thoughts. Rather, it’s an appeal for an acknowledgement of ignorance, and a call to use that acknowledgement as an impetus to become better informed.