gall and gumption

Monday, October 09, 2006

"Reader, I Slapped Him," or "That's Just Your Opinion"

A year ago when I was getting over the last breakup my friend Tom and I discussed various turns of phrase that we agreed, if we ever heard them in a relationship-type situation, would be like red lights flashing make us head for the exits.

One of them was "pity party." Another was "playing the blame game." I am also quite prepared to live without a certain style of apology: the one in which the other person very handsomely apologizes to me for my faults. "I'm sorry you misunderstood my intentions," or "I'm sorry you were hurt." Best not to be in the same room with me when you try one of those out. The outrage that this particular strategy causes me is not just because I can't "get over" things and childishly insist on being made whole by an apology -- though I will point out to you that the statue of Justice carries a scale in her hand. It's more that I sort of borrow justice's scale for a minute. I pile truth and trust and the possibility of friendship on one dish. On the other I put the gnat-sized piece of self-importance that the faux apologist is willing to trade these for. I peek over his shoulder for the cheering crowds, the loving public that wants to see him win this one. I don't see them. Just me and him in the room. "Spare me this apology and I'll give a homeless person a dollar?" I'd listen to a proposition like that, sure. But no. And then I know I am looking at the very definition of chickenshit.

I may let you have this wretched point of vanity. But I will never allow you to enjoy it. Whatever you hoped to gain by it, whatever little access of respect you hoped to gain or keep, maybe you can go get it off someone else but you will not get it from me. I can't help myself. That is the beast in me.

If you want to make me head for the exit swearing, just say, as a way of wrapping up an argument, "Well, that's just your opinion."

I have hated this expression since the first time I ever heard it, back in my teens. I mean, simply, what is the asshole who just said it speaking from? Is he channeling God? He’s speaking his opinion too, isn’t he?

Why am I thinking about this? Had a discussion about opinions with someone at work. He said most people's opinions are worthless. Well, that is probably true. But for some reason I didn't want to agree with it too readily; I prefer my own generalizations to other people's generalizations, generally, though I try to keep an open mind. But something about the statement itself made me reluctant to sign on. Of course if something is so general and it's not said by a close personal friend I don't know what I am agreeing to so I will inquire rather sharply into it.

Now I am accustomed to people attacking my generalizations as if I have no right to them. With a sort of "What could you possibly know about it?" or "Who are you to say...? " implication. And immediately it takes a bit of the wind out of me. But not for long. Because sooner or later I realize that the person who changed the subject from my question to my status is an idiot. No, let me put that more precisely: a pathetic effing idiot.

My sharp inquiries to people about their opinions are not intended to suggest that they don't know what they are talking about or that they don't have a right to an opinion (they do, but they don't have a right to bore me: if I let them, that's a favor). They may not know what they are talking about but it is not polite to begin there. I just want to understand what they mean. They don't always know. I know this from teaching and from yakking with people.

Marvin Mudrick said that you should make and discard generalizations freely. That is, you throw something out, see how far it will carry you, and in the course of revising it or discarding it you move forward a few real steps further. He did this all the time. And he encouraged his students to do it too. You learn faster if you are not afraid to be wrong. (Intellectual integrity is assumed: that is, when you find out you are in error you want to fix the error, not cover it up or blame somebody else for it or downplay its significance.) But I do occasionally meet people who take my disagreement with them as my somehow putting them personally in the wrong and it’s a frightful violation of propriety to expect them to think on their feet.

Kicking things around, for me, gives me a chance to look for errors (of knowledge, of reasoning, judgment, of priorities) and to freshen my principles. Experience tests your principles, and that's good if it doesn't kill you or make you depressed. Short of bitter personal experience, then, there is knocking your ideas against other people's ideas, or having someone way way way smarter than you open a window.

But this man at work had thrown this generalization at me and I don't know why I'm still thinking about it. When a person says "Most people's opinions are worthless," think what a great opportunity it is to say, "That's just your opinion." Not me, though. I was interested in knowing, "What is he after when he says something like that?"

Of course I immediately felt a bit weak and small with all my curiosity about other people's opinions. I felt like an Oprah fan, a Dr. Phil fans. Yes, I really ought to concern myself with more serious matters. Well, uh, what serious matters? Then I started wondering, "And how has he placed himself above the fray, then? How did he get up into that little perch and how does he pass the time?” I did not believe he was above the fray. In fact I believed at that moment that he had thought up this generalization just to irritate me. No, wait, not to irritate me, but to do something that along the way happens to irritate me -- which is nearly the same thing. He explained, as an example, that that was why he didn’t read blogs. This was not a conversation about blogs. Here was this new medium, he said, and all people did was just dump their useless opinions on it.

I wasn't prepared with an argument but that didn't shut me up, it hardly ever does. I pointed out that he didn't know the good books from the bad books when he went into a bookstore or a library either. Or when he turned on the TV. He agreed. And he also admitted that he had never read any blogs, he was just repeating what he had heard journalists say about blogs.

Well the answer to that was easy. I showed him, in about two minutes, three blogs that were better sources of news and commentary than most newspapers. But that little display of fact was not really speaking to the main point.

When I have totally unfounded opinions about things I do take some pride in the thought that at least I didn't get them from other people. No, I make up my own unfounded opinions.

Later I thought, well, that wasn't entirely fair to him. Judging media does take time. I was remembering what happens to me when I go to a movie rental store. It takes me hours. I go in there loaded with criteria: "I need something funny and a little scary and edgy but not gory and not sentimental NO ROMANTIC COMEDIES but not too heavy, I don't feel like being challenged tonight now here's something I know I should watch no no no no no no not that not that not that not that why do they even bother to make these?" That's what is in my head but if I'm there with, say, a boyfriend, I end up saying something stupid like, "I hate documentaries about primitive people." [Oh, just don't even bother to ask.] But I can waste an hour and a half trying to choose a film that won't waste my time. Why? Well, I'm working on an answer to that...

So we must allow something for the time factor. But I don’t want to go along with the "Opinions are worthless" proposition. I mean, there are good opinions and bad opinions, and it is possible to choose among them.

My mind also went to Alexander Pope's Essay on Criticism.

'Tis hard to say, if greater Want of Skill
Appear in Writing or in Judging ill,
But, of the two, less dang'rous is th' Offence,
To tire our Patience, than mis-lead our Sense:
Some few in that, but Numbers err in this,
Ten Censure wrong for one who Writes amiss;
A Fool might once himself alone expose,
Now One in Verse makes many more in Prose.
'Tis with our Judgments as our Watches, none
Go just alike, yet each believes his own.
In Poets as true Genius is but rare,
True Taste as seldom is the Critick's Share;
Both must alike from Heav'n derive their Light,
These born to Judge, as well as those to Write.
Let such teach others who themselves excell,
And censure freely who have written well.
Authors are partial to their Wit, 'tis true,
But are not Criticks to their Judgment too?

Yet if we look more closely, we shall find
Most have the Seeds of Judgment in their Mind;
Nature affords at least a glimm'ring Light;
The Lines, tho' touch'd but faintly, are drawn right.
But as the slightest Sketch, if justly trac'd,
Is by ill Colouring but the more disgrac'd,
So by false Learning is good Sense defac'd.
Some are bewilder'd in the Maze of Schools,
And some made Coxcombs Nature meant but Fools.
In search of Wit these lose their common Sense,
And then turn Criticks in their own Defence.
Each burns alike, who can, or cannot write,
Or with a Rival's or an Eunuch's spite.
All Fools have still an Itching to deride,
And fain wou'd be upon the Laughing Side;
If Maevius Scribble in Apollo's spight,
There are, who judge still worse than he can write....

The rest of it (and you should read the rest of it) is a catalog of all sorts of errors of literary judgment, with their origins. What an interesting exercise! And don't imagine that just because it's literary judgment that it has no wider application. I suspect that every field of knowledge has its mental hazards. And there is probably a fair amount of overlap among them.

Of all the Causes which conspire to blind
Man's erring Judgment, and misguide the Mind,
What the weak Head with strongest Byass rules,
Is Pride, the never-failing Vice of Fools.
Whatever Nature has in Worth deny'd,
She gives in large Recruits of needful Pride;
For as in Bodies, thus in Souls, we find
What wants in Blood and Spirits, swell'd with Wind;
Pride, where Wit fails, steps in to our Defence,
And fills up all the mighty Void of Sense!
If once right Reason drives that Cloud away,
Truth breaks upon us with resistless Day;
Trust not your self; but your Defects to know,
Make use of ev'ry Friend--and ev'ry Foe

Well, now that you've read all of the Essay on Criticism (you did, didn't you?) you might still have the question which it really doesn't answer: Why? Why care about people's opinions? Because we are social animals? So we don't have to die from trying to learn everything from experience? So we can test our judgment? So we can learn how to be better at making distinctions? Because soemtiems they are funny? What is an opinion exactly?

When John Donne wrote his Satire III, on Religion, choosing rightly or wrongly affected your chances of getting a job, maybe could get you a slow and excruciating public death at the hands of the executioner. So there were material reasons for having to judge of, say, religious opinions.

Donne’s point was that as a matter of conscience you couldn’t take for granted what group you belonged to any more. The person addressed in this poem has to make a conscious and deliberate choice. Already, you see, your competence and autonomy as a judge (however imperfect and uncommitted) are assumed. (They were not always assumed in those days.) It’s a profound business that that is assumed. Here in this poem you see the person who chooses. So how do you choose?

Religion is the subject matter in this poem but it’s really about thinking. So he opens by making a contrast between the preChristian heroes who didn’t have religion (religion for Donne is, of course, Christianity) but did take virtue more seriously than his contemporaries took religion.

Is not our mistress, fair Religion,
As worthy of all our souls' devotion
As virtue was in the first blinded age?
Are not heaven's joys as valiant to assuage
Lusts, as earth's honour was to them? Alas,
As we do them in means, shall they surpass
Us in the end? and shall thy father's spirit
Meet blind philosophers in heaven, whose merit
Of strict life may be imputed faith, and hear
Thee, whom he taught so easy ways and near
To follow, damn'd? Oh, if thou dar'st, fear this;
This fear great courage and high valour is.

The next passage is a little sketch of the times in which he lived. The “mutinous Dutch” were the people of the Netherlands who were fighting the armies of Philip II of Spain for their very lives. He was running a large-scale Inquisition there that he himself considered worse than the Spanish Inquisition. By the time this war was over, about half the population of the most prosperous, peaceful and liberal country in Europe was either dead or in exile. It’s an amazing story. The war had been going on since the previous century. It was in a battle related to it that Sir Philip Sidney died.

The other thing that was happening was more and more ships were going out to explore the Americas.

The little vignettes of life that you find throughout both his secular and devotional writings are vivid and wonderfully observed; if they seem fantastic it’s because Donne lived in a time of extremes and of wonders.

Dar'st thou aid mutinous Dutch, and dar'st thou lay
Thee in ships' wooden sepulchres, a prey
To leaders' rage, to storms, to shot, to dearth?
Dar'st thou dive seas, and dungeons of the earth?
Hast thou courageous fire to thaw the ice
Of frozen North discoveries? and thrice
Colder than salamanders, like divine
Children in th' oven, fires of Spain and the Line,
Whose countries limbecs to our bodies be,
Canst thou for gain bear? and must every he
Which cries not, "Goddess," to thy mistress, draw
Or eat thy poisonous words? Courage of straw!
O desperate coward, wilt thou seem bold, and
To thy foes and his, who made thee to stand
Sentinel in his world's garrison, thus yield,
And for forbidden wars leave th' appointed field?

And after presenting this tumultuously busy world, Donne comes up with my favorite description of the search for truth.

Be busy to seek her; believe me this,
He's not of none, nor worst, that seeks the best.
To adore, or scorn an image, or protest,
May all be bad; doubt wisely; in strange way
To stand inquiring right, is not to stray;
To sleep, or run wrong, is. On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must and about must go,
And what the hill's suddenness resists, win so.
Yet strive so that before age, death's twilight,
Thy soul rest, for none can work in that night.
To will implies delay, therefore now do;
Hard deeds, the body's pains; hard knowledge too
The mind's endeavours reach, and mysteries
Are like the sun, dazzling, yet plain to all eyes.

What he is describing is not dogma, not fixed opinions or views, but movement, inquiry, effort: activity. Which may explain why this is more about the criteria he rejects than about the ones he finally embraces. (He had a long career as one of the greatest preachers of his time to work all that out.)

There is the result (the ultimate choice) and there is the process of thinking, sorting, reflecting. The aim of this activity is not to produce an opinion but to be able to act better and have better judgment and perceptions. The process is growth. Much more interesting than opinions I think. But opinions are one way to get to that, they are like one of the traces of that kind of activity. Good poetry and fiction are better. But that’s a tale for another day.

I take it for granted that most of what people have to say about most things is opinion. To say “That’s just your opinion” is to say nothing at all, except maybe “shut up.” David Hume said that if you were having a conversation with someone and they said, “Oh, well, there’s no objective reality,” or some other version of the “that’s just your opinion” dodge, you were to stop and demand to know, “What is your intention, Sir?”



At 12:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Opinions are all-pervasive. Opinions about whether it's a good time to buy or sell set market prices. To get elected, politicians spend bundles on opinion research. A doctor's diagnosis is an opinion, and you may want to get a second. Even a factual story in a newspaper is there because in someone's opinion that story is more important than another that could have been run. "That's just your opinion" doesn't cut it because practically every human thing in the world is opinion made manifest.

At 4:54 PM, Blogger Kia said...

Devastatingly true, Norman.


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