The Gentle Art of Being Opinionated

Opinion is the medium between knowledge and ignorance.—Plato

Voltaire complained that “Opinion has caused more trouble on this little earth than plagues or earthquakes.” He would know. A recent celebrity put it even more precociously: “We have no right to express an opinion until we know all of the answers.” Presumably he knew all the answers, since the idea of not having views or beliefs is also an opinion. I’m guessing he did not. Of course I’m not against opinions, even strongly held ones. Nevertheless, there is a way to be opinionated without being self-important.

First, do so in the right company, among friends or within an acceptable intellectual setting. Second, do not utter opinions unprompted and do not propound contentious views to people you barely know. Outspokenness from strangers, even if we happen to agree with them, presumes undue familiarity. (By contrast, a public forum, including this blog, presumes a willing audience.) People who brush aside the rules of etiquette in the name of their “principles” may be willing to brush aside many other things. Their performance is more about advancing themselves than trying to advance the truth within the bounds of rational discourse.

Is that to say we can never be outspoken, or that every opinion is worthy of respect? Samuel Johnson, who was very opinionated (and most often right) said of Rousseau: “I think him one of the worst of men; a rascal, who ought to be hunted out of society, as he has been.” This holds true for philosophical lunatics in general, since they have violated the rules even before the discussion has begun.

Third, offer opinions with a sense of humility and humor. The two usually go together. Abusive commentators can be amusing, so long as we agree with them, but they seldom convince others.  The best debaters let the facts sink in through their own power, slowly if need be, rather than try to give the truth ham-fisted help it does not need. It is impatience and a desire to win that most often make us fail in disputes. Admittedly such poise is hard to achieve under the age of 40. As we get older we see that problems often resolve themselves, and people do change their minds, but not in one day.

Finally, avoid omniscience. Be willing to concede minor issues if you can still gain your main point. Do not hold forth expansively on every subject, from theology to weather patterns. Not even the greatest intellects have gotten every question right, but their different specialties complement one another, and add to our total sum of knowledge. Every true philosopher is still learning, and behind all intellectual discovery is genuine dialogue and sharing.

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