Like most true things, the opposite is also true. I used to repeat something I had heard many times, which was: “Everyone is entitled to my opinion.” It’s a joke – sort of. I’ll explain it, because explaining jokes always takes out the humor, and that’s my intention. The core idea is that everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion. Saying they are entitled to mine is a way of saying that my opinion has higher merit than theirs. Perhaps it does. I’ve really started to wish, though, that this was not the case. What I’m looking for is opinions that do merit more than my own. I want to hear from people who have more credentials than I do, who are smarter and better informed, who are more patient and tactful and better able to get their points across. I want to learn from them. If none of those cases apply, then I don’t want to get into a discussion at all. Sharing my opinion is the first, best way to start an obnoxious argument with which I have no desire to engage.
Now, I’m a friendly person. I like other people and I think I’m pretty good at drawing others out and finding their best traits. Political discussions are only going to bring out someone’s best traits if that person is highly skilled at civil discourse, which means that person is probably well on the way to a professional career in the field. This does not apply to anyone I know, nor does it apply to anyone I have ever met. There is nothing to be gained out of a political discussion with one of my peers – and, unfortunately, every discussion is a political discussion now, or will quickly become one. I’ve found this out the hard way, and now that I’ve turned 40 I think I finally understand how to disengage and just not go there.
No one is entitled to my opinion. Nobody gets to know what I really think about something. This privileged information won’t do them any good; nothing I think or say is going to change anyone’s mind. All sharing my opinion will do is to irritate at least one person, and it may take only a few seconds before a discussion is sparked that turns directly to antagonism. In person, it’s bad enough. In a text-based conversation, 90% of the relevant body language, facial expressions, vocal tone, and pauses are completely missing. Lost friendships are the norm now.
What’s the point?
What good is there to come of a bunch of arguments that lead nowhere? None of us are running for office. Well, maybe you are, but I’m certainly not. Speaking of nothing to be gained… Becoming a public figure in any field appears to be a tacit agreement that one can no longer have a private life of any kind. Every word you have ever written, every photograph that was ever taken of you, every conversation you ever had within earshot of anyone, is now public property. None of these things may have anything to do with your competence or dedication, or the results of your contribution, but your life is now nothing more than fuel for the fire of aggressive power struggles in the guise of casual chatter.
We have a rule at my house that if politics are discussed, they may only be pre-Industrial. We can talk about the politics of antiquity, or the Dark Ages, or the medieval period. Anything past about 1603 is already treading dangerous ground. I used to hold a weekly open house, where we would feed dinner to anywhere from two to 20+ people. We had a ten-top dining table, another old table, a few folding tables, and enough folding chairs to accommodate just about everyone. One night we had a couple of people sitting on plastic coolers. The only way to have a fun party with a mixed group is to steer well away from topics that are guaranteed to get people all het up. Once, one of our friends dropped by, a charming and funny man who dearly loves to stir the pot. He introduced a political topic. Everyone else at the table started making siren whoops and calling, “Danger, Will Robinson! Warning!” “We don’t do that here!” We explained about the pre-Industrial rule, everyone laughed, and the conversation rolled on. Anyone who wanted to pursue that particular political thread had only to look him up on Facebook, where he stood ready to engage in that sort of thing.
We’ve forgotten how to make small talk and discuss things that leave everyone present with a warm, friendly feeling. This is one of the main problems with our society. We are constantly sizing one another up and figuring out whether they belong to our tribe or the rival tribe. There are only two options, only two answers, only two ways to think. There is Pepsi and there is Coke, but there is no water or mango juice or lemonade or “no thank you” on tap. Absolutely anything can signify your entire worldview, from your breakfast or your choice of clothing to your musical tastes, and suddenly you’re pigeonholed into one of the two available slots. Everything is polarized. The more we “discuss” complicated issues, the more we push farther away from each other. The reason is that we don’t know how to listen to each other and trigger a feeling of personal emotional connection.
Listening to people rant is extremely tedious. I’ve been hearing the same rants about the same set of topics since the early 90s. One example is the “pull up your pants” rant. There are no iterations of this that will be funny to me. I’ve heard it or read it nearly every day for over 25 years. I wouldn’t want to hear an interesting conversation that many times. The last time I was traumatized by seeing someone’s baggy pants hanging too low, it was an elderly white man at the post office, who didn’t appear to be wearing any drawers. I felt sad for him. Sadness for others is something we rarely feel. We take it for granted that when someone else does something we disagree with, or don’t like, the motive was hostility or selfishness. We don’t tend to assume loneliness, or confusion, or sorrow, or the desire for respect, or an attempt at sincere connection. You don’t agree with me so you must want to fight.
There is someone in my life whose default setting is Angry Rant. (Actually, there are several, so don’t go thinking I’m talking about you). My practice when I’m trapped in these settings is usually to do cross stitch and keep my head down. I don’t really have a poker face, you see. Since I turned 40, I’ve decided to try to learn more about being a truly great listener. I chose to simply pay full attention and hear this person out. What was he feeling? What was his motivation? What reaction was he seeking from me? What color were his eyes? As it turned out, his eyes are a really fascinating, unusually beautiful color. I had never noticed before. He talked, and I listened. I did ask one question. It was a curious question, about him and his life. The conversation shifted to how things had changed since he was young. I felt how overwhelmed and disappointed he was by how much the world had changed. His world was a nightmare vision of violence, theft, vanished public morality, and degradation. It scared and disgusted him. I could only compare his world to my world, a world of continual technological and medical advances, where extreme poverty is being eliminated, the blind are starting to be able to see, the deaf are starting to be able to hear, and the lame are able to walk. My world of miracles and his world of terror were not the same world, not at all. If I wanted to invite him to live in my world, he had to become aware of it first. That wasn’t going to happen if ever I were to engage with him in an oppositional manner, playing his rules on his game board. My game is Candy Land and his is Mortal Kombat. My only hope is to befriend him and care for him and feel genuine interest in his life and his feelings. That single, one-sided conversation seems to have turned a tide in our relationship. The truth is that I respect him and find him interesting – him, not necessarily his opinions. Now I’m also curious to see where our friendship leads.
This is why I believe no one is entitled to my opinion. Even if I were subpoenaed in a court of law, my opinion would not be required; my observations, yes, but my opinion, definitely not. I could make a list at least ten pages long of specific bullet points that I am quite sure have the power to start arguments almost anywhere I go. More than one person has wanted to argue with me about my shoes, my lunch, my phone, or the novel I’m reading. I don’t want to. I don’t want to argue with you or with anyone. I’ll listen to you. I’ll crack jokes with you. I’ll trade stories with you. I’ll have a poetry competition with you. I’ll sing with you. I’ll cry with you. We can walk together in silence, and we can hold hands if you want. If you want to argue, you’ll have to go to someone else.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.