I was getting frustrated with the interview Sunday afternoon, but I wanted to keep things civil and polite.
I was a guest on an Internet radio show and I’d been brought in for a political discussion about Donald Trump. One of the hosts is a woman who lives in England and isn’t fond of Trump. The other host is a man in Ohio who’s a big Trump supporter.
As we got started, I first tried to find out why the man supports Trump, so I asked him to outline what he likes about Trump’s performance as president so far. It seemed like a reasonable place to start, but things went downhill from there.
The man has a lot of opinions, but when I tried to narrow down why he believed those things, he frequently had to admit that he didn’t know the facts about the subjects. He was opposed to “illegal immigration,” for instance — and insisted he wasn’t opposed to immigration overall — but he finally admitted he didn’t have any idea how U.S. laws determine who’s allowed to immigrate legally.
On subject after subject today, most modern Americans have opinions which are not based on any reality. This man had firm opinions, but his opinions weighed his mind down so much that facts weren’t necessary. He hadn’t thought through the things he believed — and it seemed to surprise him to have someone pointing this out.
This is a very nice guy and I like him a lot. I’m not identifying him here because I don’t want to call him out or make fun of him. He doesn’t deserve that. It’s simply that what I experienced with him is typical of public discourse today — and it frustrates me.
One of the most common phrases I hear today is, “I have a right to my own opinion.” In the legal sense, this is certainly true, but the emphasis on this has had two profound effects on public discussion.
First, people tend to believe they’re supposed to have opinions about everything. Even the format of “news” programming reinforces that. These shows aren’t intended to inform us or help bridge gaps in understanding. They’re more like game shows.
“You people are on that side and the other people are on this side,” the host might as well say. “When the bell rings, y’all fight each other. Whoever fights best wins.”
This sort of shallow public fighting is a lousy way to figure out what’s true, but it makes members of the audience naturally feel as though they have to choose one side or the other — like spectators at a boxing match.
Second, if people feel that they’re supposed to choose sides — and if they’re encouraged to take one side or another about everything — that means they can’t possibly have reasoned positions about everything. Nobody could have a reasoned opinion about everything, so that means people unconsciously take positions for which they have no facts.
And because the people on television are so shallow and because it’s just a boxing match instead of reasoned discussion, it no longer occurs to people that the facts matter.
If you combine these two things, you end up with a society in which almost everybody has an opinion about almost everything — but almost nobody has the facts or solid reasoning to back up those opinions.
Our minds end up being weighed down by opinions which keep us from seeing what might be true. What’s worse, most people don’t even realize what they’re doing.
The truth is that you’re not required to have an opinion about everything.
You’re not required to have a solution to every problem in the world.
You’re not required to take a side in every fight.
Most of all, it’s very reasonable — even mature and brave — to be able to say, “I don’t know enough about this, so I don’t have an opinion.”
If you watch television “news” and read online sites that pander to one group or another — as most people do today — you’re going to feel certain that you’re right about what you believe. And you’re going to be a little lost when someone points out you have no facts with which to back up those opinions.
I don’t mind if people disagree with me. Many smart and reasonable people come to different conclusions than I do about a lot of things. That doesn’t bother me in the least. But it does bother me when someone takes a position without knowing enough about a subject or (maybe even worse) when he comes to an emotional conclusion and then cherry-picks facts to support his conclusion later.
The man on the interview with me today is a good guy. I’ve been on their show three or four times now. I believe he has a good heart and wants what is best for everyone. I just think he’s been seduced by this popular belief today that it’s fine to have passionate opinions without having the facts or reason to support them.
As I say so often, turning off your television and other sources of “news” will go a long way in helping you learn to think again in rational ways, at least as much as we humans are capable of it. You’ll be happier if you get away from that shallow world of artificial conflict over things you can do nothing to change.
Most of all, though, be brave enough to say, “I don’t know.”