I used to have an opinion on everything. Even stuff I didn’t know shit about. I watched pundits on TV go on and on about things they were ignorant about, so why couldn’t I do it, too? “Pundit,” by the way, is from Sanskrit and means “learned man.” Ideally a pundit knows what he’s blithering on about, but thirty seconds of any news or sports show will quickly reveal that’s not the case. I’m amazed by the numbers of well-dressed, blow-dried, and face-pancaked assholes who jabber incessantly across our airwaves and opinion pages and yet have nothing to say. Nothing to add, that is, nothing to say that hasn’t already been said ad nauseam by some other bunch of assholes. So I got tired of opinions. In fact, I got so tired of opinions I didn’t even want to hear my own!
What I’m interested in is learning new things. No, your opinion is not a new thing. Not usually, anyway. Sometimes you encounter people that have original notions. Their thoughts on things are not just re-hashed arguments but unique insights. Their minds aren’t bound by the usual strictures imposed on us by our culture and upbringing. Those sorts of people are unusual but they are the sorts of people I want to talk to. In a media-saturated world it is difficult to escape mental conditioning. We are bombarded 24/7 with information all of which contains explicit and implicit assumptions about how the world works or ought to work. You whack a puppy on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper enough times he starts to get it and stops crapping on the carpet. We are the puppies and the information networks are the rolled-up newspapers. Over time we get tired and just let the stuff wash in and mold our perceptions.
Inventors and poets have a similar ability—to see links between things most of us don’t see. The inventor sees opportunities and solutions where others see problems and roadblocks. The poet is the master of the metaphor, that is, seeing one thing in terms of another. Good poems express a familiar thing in new and unfamiliar terms, or just the opposite, make an unfamiliar thing seem ordinary. My late mother-in-law was an artist, and she could see faces and human figures in the rocks, rivers, and trees. It didn’t seem to require effort on her part. She just looked around and there they were and then she would illustrate them. My mind seemed dull and pedestrian by comparison! I was always envious of her mental freedom.
I’m paralyzed by an ability to see every opinion. When people talk to me about “both sides” of an issue I want to kick them in the face. I’m not violent, don’t worry, and I’m good at controlling my rage. But it’s how I feel when a complex, multi-faceted topic is reduced to a pro/con argument. We love to make things simple and so you gotta be “for” or “agin” or folks will think you’re an idiot. My mind doesn’t work that way. I get to looking at people’s notions and I start seeing how they come about and fit in with this or that or the other and that leads me on to more and the next thing you know I’m somewhere else and can’t remember where I started. I might start an evening arguing one thing and by the end I’ll be arguing something else. I’m not trying to be contrary, really. I can’t help myself. I have to try things on mentally, just like trying on trousers or shirts. I have to see what I look like in different hats. It’s like finding a pretty stone on the beach and turning it over and around and looking at it from all the angles and watching the light glint off it. I can’t learn anything if I don’t do that.
So what’s a fellow to do? In the States we have freedom of speech, mostly that is, certainly more than most places in the world. So that means we have to give our opinions about stuff. At least that’s what we think it means. I taught teenagers for thirty years and they have opinions about everything, and those opinions are a big part of their self-image. It’s almost as if they believe their opinions are who they are. I can forgive them for that because finding your own viewpoint and your own voice in the world is a big part of growing up. We all need self-confidence and we all need to believe in ourselves. Expressing our beliefs and feelings is one way to do that. I heard a lot of opinions in my work and mostly I had to say “isn’t that nice?” or some other platitudinous jive because my opinion about their opinion mattered not. Part of being a teacher is accepting that all the kids are different and they don’t fit neatly into boxes. And keeping my opinion to myself meant the focus was on the student, not the teacher.
Maybe that’s all we are—a bundle of goddamn opinions! I hope not. In fact, I don’t think so. We are a bundle of perceptions, and those perceptions interact with our pre-conceived ideas and we form a picture of the world. We cling to that picture because the world is ceaselessly dynamic and we need a life raft in the swirling ocean of change. Life IS change, but changing our minds is tough. We feel better when we are “right” and our notions are vindicated. Never mind that much of that vindication is just seeing what supports our ideas and rejecting what does not. All of us do this. We are selective about what we allow to be real and true. A truly free mind would be, I think, a great challenge. The possessor of such a mind would find it hard to deal with the rest of the world as they would seem to be standing still all the time. It would be a bitch on relationships as one of the things we count on from those we love is their consistency and dependability.
Educational research consistently reveals that students take the new material that teachers show them and they twist it all around and cram it into the conceptual frameworks that already exist in their minds. Rarely do they adjust their attitudes and outlooks because of new information. It’s only when students confront the limits of what they already know and see its shortcomings that they gain insight and understanding. But this is nearly impossible to do in the classroom. And it’s even harder to do over a few pints with an opinionated drunk on the next stool. But that’s what I’m interested in: the biases that limit our knowledge and the assumptions that strait-jacket our minds. How do we shake those off and see the world anew?