For most of 2020, billions of people around the world were sequestered in their homes as a pandemic cast doubt on the future of life as we knew it. During this time, individuals of all beliefs took to the streets and airwaves to express their views with renewed fervour—regardless of how rational or sound those views were.
Take a former friend of mine. We’ll call her “Jane.” This young lady feels passionately about various issues, from COVID-19 to social justice. As the pandemic dragged on, she populated her Facebook and Instagram feeds with content that supported her generally left-wing views about lockdowns, health precautions, racism and other types of discrimination.
Jane is hardly unique in this regard. Social media has made it far too easy for us to disseminate our views to anyone who will listen. I myself am sometimes guilty of posting a half-baked thought without considering its veracity.
In any case, I see two major problems with how we as a society tend to deal with complex issues. Let’s start with the fact that a lot of people treat their own opinions as gospel—allowing emotion, ideology or ulterior motive to cloud their perspective.
Most of you are probably familiar with the saying “everyone is entitled to their own opinion.” That’s true, and there are inevitably myriad differing worldviews among the 8 billion humans on planet Earth.
However, there are not 8 billion differing realities, each as true as the next. Nor is everyone’s opinion necessarily worthy of respect.
Quick Google searches revealed that some of Jane’s social media content was demonstrably false. Much of the rest took a simplistic approach to complex topics—for instance, advocating for racial justice with a meme or a quote taken out of context. We are bombarded with this type of shallow and misleading material every day, and it can corrupt our ability to exercise sound reasoning.
There is a reason why doctors, historians, scientists and other experts must study and practice for years before they are considered authoritative. Viruses are not simple, nor are the myriad effects they can have on our society. Likewise, discrimination in North America has been shaped by centuries of historical and sociocultural trends—none of which lend themselves to a quick, Instagram-friendly post.
Now, hold on. Isn’t it possible that some of our so-called experts have been less than honest with us? What if they themselves have allowed emotion, ideology or ulterior motive to cloud their judgment?
Sure, that’s possible. Yet, it’s far easier for us as laypeople to be wrong when we’re being informed by suspect sources delivered via algorithm-curated social media feeds and lent credence by our own implicit or explicit biases.
Moving on to the second problem: some folks are either unable or unwilling to consider sound arguments that oppose their worldview.
A few times, I challenged Jane’s views in what I believed to be a respectful manner. Once, her friend wrote a passive-aggressive comment inviting me to keep scrolling if I disagreed with any of Jane’s Facebook posts.
On another occasion, Jane essentially told me that she tends to feel attacked when others consistently engage her with counterarguments.
The problem with this unhealthy behaviour should be glaring. No one is right about everything, every time. An inability to accept that—or to reconsider one’s viewpoint when presented with new information—is a sign of egotism, immaturity or both.
English philosopher John Stuart Mill believed that any given viewpoint—even a correct one—would become useless “dead dogma” if it is not debated openly and consistently. I agree with him. If not for honest, respectful debate, we would never be disabused of any falsehoods in life. We would not even grasp why truths are true.
It’s high time we discarded the poisonous myth that criticism of your opinion—or even your deepest convictions—is an assault on your well-being.
In other words, how we think is just as important as what we think. As a practicing Christian (a minority in Whistler, I know), I benefited immensely from seven years of secular education—five at the University of Calgary, two at IUPUI—where I learned about religions and philosophies different from my own.
Was that experience always comfortable? No. Was it healthy? Absolutely. Why? Because it forced me to re-evaluate my existing assumptions. It opened my eyes to what once were blind spots. Most of all, it compelled me to ask myself: “why do I believe what I believe?”
There’s a lot I don’t know. That’s why I usually stick to writing about sports. I have opinions about various issues, but I try to refrain from expressing those opinions publicly unless I first have time to do proper research. Even then, I remain open to valid counter-arguments because I’m wrong a lot of the time—and because no one ever benefited from believing that they’re above reproach.
Perhaps Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a late United States senator, put it best when he said: “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”