Views and opinions: we should have plenty of them, formed from our own thoughts, musings and observations. Best not – as Lord Haig witheringly said of one poor fellow – to be, “like a cushion, bearing the impression of the last person who sat on you.” Which gets me thinking about Lord Haig, the celebrated WW1 Army Commander who was born in Edinburgh in 1861 (there is a statue of him on horseback in the grounds of Edinburgh Castle). He himself greatly divided opinion, both during his lifetime and in the ninety years since he died. Drastically varying opinions pepper historical accounts of him, from those who hold him in great esteem as a fine military tactician who won the war, to others who brand him a mindless butcher who led thousands of soldiers to needless death in the Battle of the Somme. I’m not wriggling out of this one, but I don’t know enough about Haig to hold an informed opinion and agree one way or the other. I’m just offering you something apposite he is reported to have said.
Of course, when we are very young, we are more likely to bear the impression of the last person who sat on (or near) us: parents, siblings or admired friends. In the main, hopefully we grow up to think for ourselves. And that’s when a new challenge appears – not the challenge of taking on others’ opinions unchecked, but one where we decide opinions for ourselves and then they become part of us and we hold onto them for dear life. Leonardo Da Vinci said, “The greatest deception men suffer from is their own opinions.” If we are flexible, not too wedded to what we’ve loosely decided, then hopefully, our views and opinions will change and evolve, maybe even flip on their head. And there’s no harm in that! One’s opinions should not been worn as tightly as a Seventeenth Century French corset in which there is no room to breathe or turn around. We drift into the realm of fanaticism when we elevate our opinions to the status of fixed facts. Was W.B. Yeats simply expressing an opinion or was he stating a fact (and here is another withering put down for your word armoury) when he said that, “All empty souls tend toward extreme opinions.”
On this, the first day of the New Year, when we traditionally set ourselves unrealistic (and maybe unnecessary) goals, perhaps there are some simpler tasks we could establish: re-examining opinions (especially our own) and, in an age of fake news, questioning ‘facts’ – by which I do not mean the inalienable facts that seem to be under fire with the rise of fakery. C.P. Scott was a renowned journalist of the old school. His editorship of the (then) Manchester Guardian spanned fifty years from the Nineteenth into the Twentieth Century. In a 1921 essay marking his newspaper’s centenary, Scott put down his opinions on the role of the newspaper. He argued that the “primary office” of a newspaper is accurate news reporting, saying, “comment is free, but facts are sacred“. It has become a maxim for good journalism the world over.
My writing doesn’t purport to be factual, although nor do I aim to be fictitious. I think I’m much more in the sphere of opinion and idea, and I don’t expect you to all agree with me. My wish for this year: that we may find a clear view through the muddy water of news reporting, recognise fact from opinion, read slowly and widely and more than just the sound bites. This year I wish for all of us to do some thinking for ourselves, and to hold facts sacred.