Wednesday, September 23, 2009

`Emptiness; Uncertainty; Inanity'

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.”


philip walling said...

Neither Samuel Johnson nor Socrates would have agreed. And especially not Montaigne: read him 'On the Art of Conversing':

"I love to discuss and dispute, but in a small company of men, and in private...Opinions then that are opposed to mine do not offend or estrange me; they only arouse and exercise my mind"

Surely argument is the best way to find out what you think. By testing your thoughts against others' - in a process of dialectic - you refine them. Good arguers give no quarter and do not expect any, but they do obey certain rules of fairness in accepting when they're beaten AND all concerned have to be equally clever and dispassionate.
Maybe that's what troubled your friend - they were neither clever nor obeyed the rules and they weren't arguing to get to the truth.

R. T. said...

Your shared anecdote about the women arguing in Starbucks reminds me a simple concept that I try to impart to students in my composition and rhetoric classes. Stated in its most basic form, it goes something like this: Anyone can have an opinion. Opinions, however, are rather useless because they are intensely personal and subjective (in most cases). On the other hand, if someone can take that opinion, turn it into a well-structured argument (with a claim and evidence) that accounts for rhetorical appeals (ethos, logos, and pathos), then that person is well on his or her way to contributing something useful. Logically sound argument becomes constructive dialogue. What started off as immature opinion will have been transformed into mature, reasoned conversation.

With that being said, perhaps your editorial acquaintance and the women in Starbucks ought to give more thought to the differences between opinion and argument.

Marcia Lee Metzger said...

Certainly it's possible to have strong feelings about our eighth President of the United States! In addition to being the founder of the Democratic Party and the person most responsible for helping get our 7th President, Andrew Jackson, elected, he was involved in a number of antebellum controversies. He was also the first President to be born a citizen of the United States (as opposed to being a British subject before the Revolution) and spoke English as his second language - Dutch being his first. To learn more about our 8th President, you may wish to visit Martin Van Buren National Historic Site in Kinderhook, NY (open for visitors 7days a week until October 31).

philip walling said...

Dear Marcia Lee Metzger,

I find your post so depressing. You seem to exemplify the point that Mr Kurp is making.
'Strong feelings' is what makes it impossible to discuss anything with anybody in any depth that might help to illuminate the truth.
What's your argument?

Chrees said...

Cartoonist Scott Adams had a tagline, which a co-worker used to make often, that meshes with your Houston friend's experience: "When did ignorance become a point of view?"