One of the bleakest discoveries of the pandemic was quite how many people imagined themselves to be amateur epidemiologists brimming with compelling insights on lockdowns and vaccine science. The war in Ukraine turned the epidemiologists into experts on military hardware. The war in Gaza has bestowed an unexpected new round of degrees in Middle Eastern history
Most people are happy to see their industries thrive. As a professional dispenser of opinions I confess to queasiness. Opinion is eating the world. In the 21st century there is no human tragedy so ghastly that it cannot be made the foundation stone for rickety new edifices of pompous self-assertion. I have witnessed quite hilariously self-important infographic “explainers” of the 6,000-year history of the Holy Land published on Instagram by people who could not have pointed to Israel on a map three weeks ago. A hospital bombing became the subject of excited “hot takes” within minutes.
Doubt, uncertainty and judicious silence are the victims of a culture that celebrates instant conviction, opinion and certitude. For many people there is no geopolitical tragedy so grim that it cannot be ameliorated by their personal point of view. This is not to diminish the importance of protest or moral outrage in the face of horror, only to doubt the prevailing modern impulse to interpret one’s emotional response as evidence of geopolitical expertise. Sometimes, to listen or to read more or to reserve judgment is better than to speak.
Writing in the 1970s, the media theorist Neil Postman connected the rise of opinion to the “information glut” created by modern technology. In the past, most of the information that reached us was somewhat relevant to our lives and therefore offered opportunity for action. But, bombarded with decontextualised fragments of fact from across the world that we cannot do anything about, we feel “a diminished social and political potency.”
All we were left with, Postman wrote, was opinions. And all we could do with those opinions was to offer them to opinion pollsters who turned them into more news about which we could have more opinions, a “great loop of impotence”.
If Postman man thought pollsters were bad he should have seen Facebook. Today we post our opinions online where they generate more opinions, which themselves generate more opinions, ad infinitum in a terrifying infinite regression of self-importance.
For many, an opinion has achieved the status of a positive moral duty. At the height of Black Lives Matter we were introduced to the catchphrase, “silence is violence”. The implication: to reserve judgment is to sin. The slogan has returned at every subsequent tragedy. Celebrities are hounded for their views. Taylor Swift, who managed for years to maintain the dignified apolitical mystery of an old-school pop star had her (entirely unsurprising liberal) political opinions ground out of her by fans.
Has compelled speech ever benefited anyone? Badly informed partisan tweeters do little more than offer their enemies delicious evidence of how dumb the other side is. Amateur editorialising tends to debase tragedy. Few people have informed ideas about what is happening on the ground in Gaza. Virtually everyone is able to speculate about what it might mean for the Labour Party. And so a human calamity is reduced to the status of a Westminster scandal.
The root of our modern problem is the way opinion has become bound up with identity. In the absence of religious or community affiliations our opinions have become crucial to our sense of self. On race, gender and religion we are a tolerant people. On matters of opinion, less so.
fifths of Remainers would be “upset” if their child married a Brexiteer. An analysis of surveys of American citizens found that many were adapting their personal identities to fit their political opinions, rather than vice versa. Over time, supporters of the Democratic Party were more likely to start identifying as Latino or gay or of ethnic minority ancestry. Republicans were more likely to change from gay to straight. When “speaking out” on tragedies most people are hoping to communicate something about themselves as well as about the news.
In a society that places a premium on the virtue of “self-expression”, opinion has acquired an inflated social cachet. Companies have learnt to flatter us by endlessly.
soliciting our feedback, reviews and star ratings. Radio phone-in shows and shock jocks proliferate. The point isn’t to make anyone better informed, rather to feed the modern addiction to personal response.
Whenever a BBC star leaves the corporation they gush that they are thrilled to enter the prestigious world of opinion. Emily Maitlis described the BBC’s impartiality guidelines as “censorship”. Andrew Marr was “keen to get my voice back”. I do not think their predecessors would have been so excited about the chance to editorialise. News has lost status to commentary. Despite my obvious bias, it is not a development I think we should endorse.
This is not to denounce opinion tout court. Much commentary is illuminating and invaluable. My point is that an important balance has gone awry. We must not forget that facts are more important than points of view and wise silence better than thoughtless speech. But that’s just my opinion