Against Opinion

It was a little surreal to see a whole week’s news cycle gobbled up by something that happened on an awards show allegedly no one watches anymore. Even my neighbor’s supposedly “far left” podcasts I’m often forced to overhear (who knew so many failed stand-up comedians have podcasts??) were bloviating about it all week. Once something becomes outrage-rich, it’s almost like there’s literally no distinction among orders of magnitude. Suddenly it seemed incumbent on us all to have an opinion (or ten) about this.

Of course I gleefully leapt right into the breach. There were echoes of the same sagacity across the board everyone demonstrated talking out their asses about Ukraine when that all started to go down. Having some experience in that region, I pretty much kept mum and watched with amazement as everyone hammered out the narrative to fit whatever their worldview at the moment happens to be. It was genuinely impressive to see how elastic these threads of human suffering elsewhere in the world can be. Like “The Slap Heard Round the World,” the invasion of Ukraine, with little or no facts available, could be made to fit any agenda. As our public reliance on experts fades into the mist, everything is about everything now. And everything is about what we think of everything. That’s a really interesting development, actually. (It’s also why I’ve been writing fewer and fewer posts like this lately, but that’s a post for another time.)

So you couldn’t not talk about The Slap. It was classic water cooler fodder. At one point I off-handedly observed to my leftist podcast neighbor that Will Smith could easily get black-listed in Hollywood for what he did, an observation he naturally took as opinion. We have lost the sense of any distinction between observation and opinion.

He gave me a pained look, and asked admonishingly: “would that be appropriate?

I was supposed to feel the sting of moral judgment, but what I really felt was sorry for him at that moment: a brilliant person, Ivy league pedigree going back generations, reduced to thinking such serious, earnest thoughts about something about which his opinion, and mine, could not mean less. People have become convinced their opinions are like magic, their every utterance world-transforming. It’s also probably our system of opinions as social capital that’s to blame. As the 99% fall into penury, we are reduced to using opinion for currency. This has always been true to some extent, but it’s especially true when the cycle of inequality reaches its apogee in an era and we have nothing but the shirt on our backs and our opinions to show our actual and desired social station. The trouble with opinions as currency, though, is that the more there are in circulation, the less they’re worth. This is also why opinions on The Slap that flooded social media the day after so quickly became worthless in themselves.

Anyway, my neighbor’s excitement at thinking he had caught me in a “bad opinion” was funny. I laughed. I do that now a lot. I probably shouldn’t.

I said: “I was just thinking of possible outcomes.” That’s just how my mind works, I guess. I don’t have this illusion that the fate of the world hinges on my opinions on every little thing. I do have some intimation that the fate of the world might hinge on my opinions about the cultural trend of broadcasting opinions about everything, and, again, about the totalitarian tendency to make everything about everything and the need then to bend everything to conform to our own handicraft epistemologies. This is how ideology works. It’s radically reductionist. And the totalitarian-ready personality of our time is always attracted to eliminating nuance. Like those TikTok filters that airbrush all the pores off your face, we want our worldviews unblemished by wrinkles, shadows and imperfections. We give and receive constant little dopamine bumps on social media for airbrushing every aspect of our lives.

But my dirty little secret is: sometimes I don’t even have an opinion. Sometimes I’m just watching the shitshow from a safe distance, grateful I have a safe, cozy little aerie in the world. I know that that’s a privilege these days, and that that translates into this landscape of opinionating. To not have an opinion is socially suspect. But to have the wrong opinion could be socially disastrous. Which is why we have legacy media prognosticators, social media “influencers” and legions of podcasters across the spectrum who hammer out the shape of public opinion, each of which conforms (like magic!) to their chosen master narrative. Of course, this process can be clunky and cringey. With Ukraine, it took several weeks to draw the battle lines and dig the trenches on the opinion front, because every phase of this, influencers have to pretend they know what they’re talking about. With Ukraine it was woefully clear they did not. Eventually what happened was they scrabbled up enough anecdotal scrub to graft the war narrative onto their opinion brand. It became part of their Theory of Everything, whatever their Everything was.

We put a lot of stock into opinions. But increasingly, because every opinion is about our personal Theory of Everything (and our social media brand), we make no distinction in orders of magnitude. An opinion about “whether or not Chris Rock deserved it” is as big on social media (if not bigger) than “whether or not Ukraine deserved it,” both real questions that opinion pieces have been written about. Never mind that both queries are absurdly reductive and relatively meaningless, in the twitterverse they have equal weight. 

But the way I’ve always seen it, the cultural tide comes in, goes out. Sometimes someone drowns. It’s sad – that’s a fact – but it’s not necessarily something about which I’m called to have or give an opinion. There’s a brain-drain element to this: a sense in which our moral imagination is being tugged in different directions, where the need to understand and differentiate the magnitude of incidents sparking outrage is important. Outrage takes a lot out of us, however exhilarating it might feel to express it. Likewise, assembling an opinion and grafting it to our worldview is effortful. We have finite reserves when it comes to what claims our attention. So, yeah: it’s not always an opinion that’s called for. Sometimes it’s something else. You can always have an opinion, even about a drowning. Someone will surely say: “Oh, he should not have swum out past the buoys.” “I heard he had been drinking,” someone else might put in. “He thought he was a better swimmer than he was (obviously),” yet another might snicker up his sleeve. If this goes on long enough eventually someone will say: “I heard it was Adolph Hitler! I’m glad the motherfucker drowned!”

Our public opinions feel more vital when they trend toward binaries: good/bad, friend/foe. We’ve been so thoroughly conditioned in our virtual/public life to seek out – and more and more rabidly – the binaries, the lines that mark the tribal boundaries, in everything. In everything we’ve been trained to root out The Them. It’s automatic now. It’s reflexive. Where are the points of contention here? Where are the combat lines drawn? We are always squaring off. Our public identities, as flimsy and thin as they are, demand that we take one side or the other. And it, whatever it is, then becomes a matter in which our very identities are rooted. It’s the embodiment of confirmation bias. This opinion must conform to our deepest beliefs. An attack on our opinion of whatever it is today is an attack on our very being, our culture and affiliations.

There’s no room for, “wow, that was fucked up,” anymore. Pick a side. Defend it with your life.

Depending on who you are or the narrative arc you’ve spun for your social avatar, this incident could have been about race, gender, chivalry, or the Church of Scientology; abuse, spousal manipulation, mental health, decorum, privilege, freedom of speech, cancel culture, or a gazillion other things no one gives a shit what you think about. An actual headline on the op-ed page of the New York Times last week read: “What Will Smith and Joe Biden Have in Common.” Newsweek ran an in-depth piece covering an influencer who compared Will Smith to Putin.

There’s an infinite number of “faultlines” here. And people really get passionate about their arguments on one side or the other of all these “it’s about” binaries. It’s that little dopamine pump of taking a side. The satisfaction of outing an enemy. The pace at which this happens shows how conditioned people are. Often influencers (and the rest of us) are forced to walk back outrageous correlations once the culture has moved on to the next outrage, but they (we) put them out there in the first place because the urge to do so is Pavlovian.

What made this particular cultural moment more surreal for me was hearing more details of my Kyivi friend’s escape to the Czech Republic before the Russians blew up her home. I first met my friend from Ukraine almost twenty-five years ago, when I was a teaching fellow in Central Europe. We hung out for five years together there, and have kept in touch ever since. While she had checked in in Budapest days before Russian troops rolled in to lay waste to her city, just to say she had made it out, and then again when she reached Prague days later, we had not yet had a chance to catch up beyond “I’m alive.”

At the height of Slapgate she wrote a little about her journey:

We made it to Prague with [my daugher] and staying in a little nice apartment in the very heart of Brandys-nad-Labem. From here we can take a bus and in 30 minutes – we are in Prague.

I was never spoiled, I believe, but now – having no military attacks during the nights and enough food make any place a paradise for me… so one side of me is extremely happy, that [my daughter] is in safe place and another is heartbroken for my parents, they are in [Berdyansk] which is occupied by Russians.

Currently  there is nothing really terrible going on, but the city has no heating and gas, no telephone connection, no television and internet. Possible food and medicine issues.

— I want you pause and really take in that line about “nothing really terrible going on,” followed by many – really every terrible thing. She goes on:

I asked my parents to come to Kiev [sic] few days before it all started, but they said they are too old to travel.. 

Since then, this terrible feeling that I betrayed them, left them there old, cold and lonely, tearing me apart everyday.. they are old, they are not well and I feel so bad and annoyed with all the governments in the world, who is a part of this fucking game.. 

“Well, so ..we have a visa to stay here for a year. But, as you said, I hope something should happen to give us our lives back.

Reading her short dispatches, I feel utterly helpless. But there is nothing here that calls for my opinion. This is a personal narrative, and it requires a different faculty altogether, a true rather than performative moral engagement: compassion, companionship, and a listening stance. To be here, to offer what I can when called. That should be intuitive. But even our deepest sympathies can be plagued by reflexive performative opinion. 

The usually spot-on minister of the UU church in Back Bay I sometimes attend wrote about her big dilemma of the past week:

[One of our members] sings with the Yale Russian Chorus. The chorus performed at Arlington Street in 2005, but not since — despite several attempts to schedule them. Most recently, we were foiled — twice — by the pandemic. And then Russia invaded Ukraine.  How can we, in good conscience, host the chorus … and, the chorus wondered, How can we sing?

The imperialist idiocy of directing our moral ire at a Russian chorus, instead of our own dependence on a way of life that demands blood for oil, that requires the ruin of countless lives to support the wasteful life we take for granted, is stomach-churning. I saw stabs at drawing these battle lines early on among influencers. As the tragedy unfolded, in late February, one post by a Facebook group called “Being Liberal” struck me:

Iterations of this have since become common among nominally or performatively “liberal” influencers, with the rationalization that putting pressure on Russian expats or cultural exchange orgs will lead to regime change, just as in US citizens were able to halt their country’s military incursions in Iraq and Afghanistan and affected regime change after the revelations of atrocities at Abu Ghraib.

Psych! Just kidding. As we all know, resistance at home was utterly ineffectual in Iraq, and Afghanistan was the nation’s longest war to date, rife with highly publicized crimes against humanity for which no one in power was deposed or held the least bit accountable. Nothing US citizens have done has shrunk the US military budget, which accounts for half of the US government’s annual discretionary spending and more than the next nine top-spending countries combined.

The glee with which these opinions are proffered, and words like “barbarians” are thrown about by beneficiaries of the most spectacularly armed imperial power in history, tracks with our absolute entitlement to the foreign resources that are the cause of such violence and tragedy in the lives of ordinary people “over there” who are just trying to get by. We finally have the science and technology to make renewable energy a reality. The least we can do is demand that it be implemented, and until it is, curtail our own waste. But even that’s too much of a sacrifice for us.

The hypocritical attacks on the people, even expats who haven’t lived there for decades or generations, of nations that, like ours, invade others for control of resources that we guzzle down like it’s our God-given right, will only intensify as we hear more about atrocities committed by Russian troops in places like Bucha, Ukraine. Make no mistake, these atrocities truly deserve our outrage and calls for accountability, but our own culture of opinion will likely mire public “debate” in a maze of equivocations as we reflexively seek clever equivalences and hold forth on our social media platforms and podcasts, until the reality of human suffering is reduced to insufferable opinionating.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s