I don’t believe I know a single human being who would say that the fundamental messages of Martin Luther King, Jr. or Jesus of Nazareth are absurd or uninspired. And yet they were, if nothing else, opinionated. Dangerous enough to murder. I’ve discovered that if you’re the sort of person who is passionate about cultivating their principles in your life and talking about it even to a moderate degree, you will encounter no shortage of people who will dismiss you as radical, naive, unrealistic, unbalanced, and self-righteous. And of course, opinionated.
Yes, I’m opinionated. But people only point that out when they aren’t comfortable with what I’m saying. When they do agree with me, it’s completely irrelevant. So I’m sensitive about this word because it carries a negative connotation with the intention diminishing of our credibility.
I’m an idealistic person. But I try to be respectful up the point where someone tries to spit in my face. I don’t shove my views down people’s throats, say things to provoke or open my mouth without having thought about something. I don’t instigate arguments with people and I try my best not to call people names. There are times when I walk away from an argument wishing I’d told someone to fuck off only later to appreciate the fact that I didn’t get emotionally hooked and took the high road. Everybody messes up. Living in a world where we struggle to reconcile opposing opinions is draining. Encountering people who have no interest in genuinely engaging and cultivating respect is infuriating. Very few people have the equanimity not to blow their lids when that happens.
Because people know that I’m sympathetic to, shall we say, non-status quo ideologies, they seem to interpret that as an invitation to debate me. That’s not my desire and I’m not sure why they do this but they can’t seem to resist. Most of the time I avoid getting engaged because I know what’s going to happen. They’re not interested in having a productive conversation that results in us getting to know each other as people. I get hoisted up on the stand and cross-examined. I have no control over the questions they’re asking and little say in the direction or tone. They lob a question at me. I have to explain myself. They react and repeat the process, rarely allowing me to finish. Suddenly I go from being a guest at a Thanksgiving dinner to a politician under interrogation.
I’ve never called anyone out for it but now that I think of it, it’s very unfair to put someone on the defensive and force them to talk about an issue within such a limited, pressured environment. The exchange isn’t designed to undulate or meander; it just goes back and forth. The result is that people often end up thinking I believe things I don’t. I guess it’s easier to dismiss my ideas if one assumes I arrived at a particular conclusion for the same reasons someone they already disagree with does, or that I hold the same views as every other person who belongs to the same groups I do.
Maybe I’m just too self-conscious, but when I’m compelled to offer my interpretation of an issue it’s like I can intuitively sense some people’s anxiety as they barely contain their visible scrutiny. Great, there goes the opinionated hippie again. The thing is, everyone has opinions. The degree of passion with which we voice them isn’t a reflection of the validity of our points, nor is the degree to which our opinions are mainstream or popular – or radical for that matter.
We often hear people say that they have a right to their own opinion. This is true. But with rights comes responsibility. My general view is that just because we can say something doesn’t mean we should. Impressions will differ about what’s appropriate. But to say something for the purpose of inciting rage or violence is to create hurt, division, and the potential for serious conflict. In such cases one’s responsibility to be respectful and encourage peace should trump one’s right to say whatever the hell they want. We need to be reasonable and sometimes that means setting boundaries.
So what does it mean to say that someone is opinionated? A more important consideration is, what sort of attitudes inspire these views? Are they formed out of anger, fear or ignorance? Are they coming from a place of honesty, understanding, and respect? A person who has invested the energy into forming a coherent argument doesn’t hide behind “I have a right to my opinion”; they defend the veracity of their position. That doesn’t make them right and it doesn’t mean they’ll listen to anyone else but at least they’re thinking analytically and communicating. The more we entourage this the more opportunities there are to develop relationships.
Just as important as our right to an opinion is our responsibility to transform that idea into something constructive. To me, it’s about striking a balance between serving the collective and protecting the individual. An opinion is the completion of a thought process but that’s not where our thinking should stop. People don’t always want to have carefully articulated views about every topic and that’s fine. When we do, however, we don’t owe anybody the privilege of expressing a view that’s consistent with theirs.