Monday, March 30, 2015

`Willingness to Hear'

Susan Glickman, a Canadian writer new to me, describes opinions as “the fast food of the pseudo-intelligentsia,” but doesn’t go quite far enough. Opinion is no longer the Big Mac exclusively of the nattering classes. Everyone seems to be spouting off with little provocation, and because nothing euthanizes true conversation faster than rabidly expressed opinions, good talk, if not extinct, is on the endangered-species list. Much noise, little thought. One strives to be indulgent and polite, but when a stranger’s opening gambit is “You know what I think?”, the only honorable reply is “No, and I don't care.” Glickman writes: 

“Opinions give me the heebie-jeebies, and opinions seem to be, increasingly, what people expect writers to have. And I don’t mean opinions about books, which are, after all, one’s business if one is a writer. I mean opinions about daily life, or politics, or the environment; the kind of opinions people seem compelled to share with each other on talk shows and editorial pages . . .” 

Most opinions are driven not by wit, or a desire to elucidate or amuse, but by that dirty little boy on the inside who scrawls on the bathroom wall. Glickman, whose post was shared with me by a reader in Toronto, puts it nicely: “I found myself wondering why people always find it so hard to say, `I don’t know.’  Why are we more ashamed of not being able to express an opinion than of expressing a stupid one?” Because the ego, even more than nature, abhors a vacuum. A confession of ignorance is more shaming than a dignified silence. In his essay on conversation, The Rambler #188, Dr. Johnson puts it like this: “The modest man satisfies himself with peaceful silence, which all his companions are candid enough to consider as proceeding not from inability to speak, but willingness to hear.” 

Johnson’s observation reminds me of a variation on an old joke: What do hemorrhoids and opinions have in common?  Sooner or later, every asshole gets one.


George said...

Note that pedants lose all proportion. They never can keep sane in a discussion. They will go wild on matters they are wholly unable to judge, such as Armenian Religion or the Politics of Paris or what not. Never do they use one of those three phrases which keep a man steady and balance his mind, I mean the words (1) After all it is not my business. (2) Tut! tut! You don't say so! and (3) Credo in Unum Deum Patrem Omnipotentem, Factorem omnium visibilium atque invisibilium; in which last there is a power of synthesis that can jam all their analytical dust-heap into such a fine, tight, and compact body as would make them stare to see. I understand that they need six months' holiday a year. Had I my way they should take twelve, and an extra day on leap years.

--Hilaire Belloc, The Path to Rome

mike zim said...

"Blessed is the man, who having nothing to say, abstains from giving wordy evidence of the fact." --George Eliot