I remember a particular teacher during my school career who used to shout at us, “QUESTION EVERYTHING”, “NEVER ACCEPT THE STATUS QUO”, “NEVER ASSUME YOU’RE RIGHT”. We giggled and pretended to ignore her, too cool for school at the back of the class. But somewhere, sometime, somehow, those words have stayed with me and I’ve tried to pass them on to my kids.
I’m convinced that a spirit of enquiry, a striving to expand our minds, and a wide rebellious streak that seeks to improve on the status quo is what drives humanity onward. But it is my teacher’s third assertion that I am reminded of most often. I hear her voice and am reminded that my ego can only ever hold me back. An out of control ego blinds and deafens me to truth. It stops me feeling empathy and prevents me learning from others.
What saddens me is that we appear not to be teaching this in schools these days. Some days, social media appears to be mainly populated by people who have made the very simple error of confusing their opinion with scientifically verifiable fact. Unfortunately, having an opinion that candles can burn under water, or the earth is flat, doesn’t make it true. Nope. Not even if you close your eyes and wish very, very hard.
This attitude of ‘my opinion is my opinion, you have no right to try challenge me, help me see sense or teach me something that will open my mind and possibly improve my life’ seems to be getting more and more common. Comment threads under newspaper articles, social media discussions, forums and message boards; these people are everywhere, banging the “it’s my opinion and I don’t need to defend myself” drum.
Yes, yes you do. I’m sorry, but if you’re wrong, we have every right to challenge you. Your opinions may hurt others feelings, or perpetuate dangerous or undermining myths. Did we all sit back and respect the perpetrators of the Apartheid regime as ‘entitled to their opinion’? Did we sit in West Berlin and whisper that we mustn’t hurt the Russians’ feelings or shake their world view?
There is a way to challenge, debate, teach, share and learn from each other without being openly hostile. Just because I might hate your opinion, doesn’t mean I hate you. In fact, the very reason I challenge you is because I care. If I didn’t give a toss, I’d shrug my shoulders and scroll on by.
So here’s my gift to you: I’m gonna show you how you can prevent hurting people or making them angry with your opinions.
Opinion that will enflame large numbers of mothers:
“If that kid can walk/talk/has teeth/can help himself to her tit he should be weaned already”
Way to word your surprise and discomfort without causing an internet shitstorm:
“Oh, I’ve never seen a child that old breastfeeding before. How does it work? Is it healthy for mother and child? How does it feel to nurse a child past babyhood? What is the evidence for the natural age of weaning for humans?
See what I did there?
Or let’s see this from the other way round. I might be wrong. I want you to challenge me, ask me for evidence, possibly help me see there is more to this debate than I thought. Expand. My. Mind. When you get all huffy and play the victim, it does nothing to educate others. And isn’t that one of the best, most amazing things about the internet age: our ability to learn from each other?
Next time you’re asked why you think a certain way, rather than closing the conversation down by saying something like ‘this is my opinion and I don’t need to defend myself’ and stalking off, feeling “judged” or “bullied”, I wonder how it would feel to really open your mind to the possibility that you might be wrong? I wonder how it might feel to try on the other view for size, just for a bit. Walk around in it for a while. Look in the mirror. How does it feel?
It’s a big ol’ world out there. Full of adventure, and stuff to embrace and stuff to oppose, stuff to lift you into a state of bliss and stuff to send you screwy with rage. It’s all brilliant, and magic. Why reduce the size of your world with that lil’ phrase, “It’s my opinion”?
Remember, I’ll be right there, shouting and waving placards defending your right to your opinion, even if that opinion is that the moon is made of cream cheese. But, please, please, dear people, try not to be offended if I put my placard down, for just a minute, to remind you that you may also have cream cheese where your brain should be. Because, that, too, is my right.