Voltaire: “Opinions have caused more ills than the plague or earthquakes on this little globe of ours.”
Is Voltaire correct? And, if he is, what is there to talk about if we don’t share and explore opinions? Do the opinions themselves cause the ills, or is it our reaction to the opinions expressed that cause the injury? In the case of things that don’t matter much, we can respond with mini eruptions of dissent that in turn cause an equal and opposite reaction until we are all going off like an explosion at a fireworks factory.
I attend lots of writing workshops where we are careful with our opinions as we know they can have a powerful impact, an ability to affect the confidence of others, even to crush, and besides, how important is it for others to know what you think about their work? It’s all a matter of taste, or, chacun à son goût, as the shrugging French might say. In one particular class I attend, we start off by reading and commenting on a published work; this week it was Brian Dillion, an Irish writer, critic, essayist, someone who makes a living out of forming opinions on the work of others. Indeed, the piece of his that we read (a section from the book Essayism), divided the class in terms of our opinion on it. Some felt switched off and bored, irritated even. I myself felt nourished by his words, absorbed by his suggestion that in writing an essay (basically a long-winded opinion) one might write with “a hail of conflicted attitudes” and, “perform with a combination of exactitude and evasion.” He had so many beautiful ways of expressing how we can hold contradictory views, how we can affirm an argument, then nullify it. “The greatest art is nothing but delicately broached negation.” Fantastic.
However, there are times when I cannot delicately broach anything; classes where I feel unable to speak because I don’t have anything interesting to say. I am lacking an opinion. And this seems to be a worse position to be in than holding strong opinions. Sitting on the fence seems to be seen as a weakness these days. Not being at all sure can be interpreted as a lack of character. “Whatever you think yourself,” can be viewed as a cop out. But I contend there is a strength in reserving judgement, in admitting, ‘I haven’t made up my mind.’
One of my favourite brothers called me recently to express concern about not having changed his mind on anything lately. He quoted William Blake to me: “the man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, and breeds reptiles of the mind.” But the very fact that he is thinking about it, means he will. Oh yes, he will.
I think we would be better off with fewer firm opinions and more watery undecideds. (Have I just expressed an opinion about having opinion? Oops!) I think if we were to preface every opinion with the words, “in my opinion…” then we would opine less, for there is something about those three words that alert us to the strong possibility of a rant, lecture, pompous pronouncement. Why get all hot under the collar about the merits and demerits of Noel Fielding’s ubiquitous skinny jeans or the schmaltz-overload in the brass band prelude to Noel Gallagher’s new Christmas song or whether Supervet, Noel Fitzpatrick, really is the best Noel of all?
Oscillate, vacillate, fluctuate – go on, change your mind. Be undecided. Equivocate, and beat around that proverbial bush, there is great comfort to be had in doing so. Take it from the wise, old American fireside poet, James Russell Lowell: “the foolish and the dead never change their opinions.”