I worked with an editorial writer who had few interests in life outside his own vociferously expressed opinions. He was intelligent, articulate, provocative and well suited to his job but made for difficult company. One day at lunch in a Chinese restaurant he started an argument over Martin Van Buren. I hadn’t known it was possible to feel so strongly about the eighth president of the United States.
Holding vehement opinions usually is coupled with a desire to have others share them. Call it persuasion, bullying or proselytizing, it ranks among the most tiresome of character defects and implies a gnawing sense of insecurity. In his latest column, “Santayana and tragic grandeur,” Frank Wilson says this about such matters:
“I have no interest in convincing anyone to see things as I do — in this matter, or in any others. The only authentic conclusions are those you arrive at by thinking matters through on your own. But there is some value in recounting what one thinks and why one thinks it.”
“Authentic” implies honestly arrived at, not verifiably true. When we express conclusions, we have no control over their reception. An opinion is not a quasi-divine utterance and is open to rejection or modification by others, a work-in-progress. A friend writes from Houston:
“I'm still thinking about that Herbert post. I'd been pondering the general topic since I sat near a group of women in a Starbucks one day a couple of weeks ago and was forced to listen to them discuss why the Catholic church was moronic for not ordaining women. Not being Catholic myself, I didn't have much stake in the argument but I was astonished by their blithe assumption that the tradition of the Church was utterly without value and further, that their own opinions deserved equal weight with those of, say, Augustine of Hippo or Aquinas. I wish I could have recorded it, so I could play it back for anyone who doubts that we're awash in narcissism. It was jaw-dropping. Maybe this is what comes of too much democracy.”
With the right to an opinion comes the obligation to express it, no matter how ill-informed or ridiculous. The lexicographer defined the urge as “Emptiness; uncertainty; inanity.”