Wednesday, June 25, 2008
There are a heck of a lot of opinions out there. Some days they come at you as thick as black flies over Lac Ouareau on a July afternoon. Small, insistent opinions: some winging singly and some blackening the sky in noisy hordes. Some are meaningful and some mean well and some are just mean, but most are superfluous to our peaceful co-existence on the planet—or at least to the quiet enjoyment of a summer afternoon in the Laurentians. You can swim out to the dock to work on your tan, you can bury your head in an Agatha Christie novel so venerable that it’s lost its cover and smells not of paper but of wood smoke and mildew, but unless you stay under water holding your breath, you just can’t escape the plague of modern opinion.
I should know. I can trace my descent from a series of givers of advice both requisitioned and unsolicited; a long wiggly conga line of experts and teachers and doctors and social workers and other avatars of professional wisdom. Indeed, I myself have been, in my time, guilty of opinion-mongering in mixed company. I was a professor. I was an editor. I was a book reviewer. These learned occupations may seem sufficient justification for one's dispensing one's notions like so much aspirin, since people expect that anyone with a capital P small H capital D after their name ought to have profound thoughts about subjects of passing import. And in fact, in those bad old days, flattered by the merest quiver of interest, I complied whenever possible. I improvised opinions instante, trying to sound witty, informed and sardonic, or sincere, passionate and moral, depending on the subject in question and the degree of engagement of my interlocutor. Nonetheless my belly churned with shame, knowing intimately (as such organs do) that I had no right to trumpet opinions on subjects with which I had insufficient familiarity.
Before Borat declared open season on satirizing Americans, Rick Mercer had a TV show in which he got over-eager Yanks to expose their ignorance of Canada by asking them trick questions like whether the city of Winnipeg should outlaw the annual polar bear hunt. Not wanting to admit they’d never heard of such a thing, they would happily spout nonsense, which the camera obligingly recorded for posterity. Watching them in their enthusiastic innocence being bludgeoned as heartlessly as baby seals, 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?
A question worth pondering, my friends, the next time you find yourself tempted to respond to a telemarketer or doodle in the answers to a quiz while waiting for the dentist.
I speak here only of opinions, mind you. Judgments are something else again. There's nothing quite as impressive as a well-considered judgment, robed in evidence and crowned with citations, sturdily shod in footnotes and trailing yards and yards of bibliography. Those guys wind my clock, I tell you; they make me proud to be a primate with opposable thumbs and the two-volume edition of the OED. But judgments deserve respect precisely because they’ve paid their dues. It takes time to arrive at a considered judgment: time to noodle around in libraries, to wander and ponder and get good and lost; time to find your way out of the woods again, older and wiser, following a bread-crumb trail by the light of the moon.
Time is equally essential to all Judgment’s respectable friends and relations: the well-founded Belief, the reasonable Surmise, the profound Conviction, or even the oft-maligned but really rather fetching old-fashioned Doctrine. Stuff that's weathered years and stood up to skeptics, scoffers, and one's own doubts—now that's stuff with substance.
But opinions ... well, 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, and even, alas, on Via Rail. Opinions are to judgments what sushi is to bouillabaisse: superficially pretty and chic, but ultimately raw and indigestible. The fast food of the pseudo-intelligentsia; something to be ingested on the run in that heedless North American way so disdained by the French. Insubstantial sound bites prepared by food-stylists instead of chefs.
Think about it for a minute. Why should a writer be expected to be a social commentator? Why would someone whose principal occupation is making a single cup of coffee last for two hours be an authority on how to end violence in the Middle East or shrink the ozone hole over the Antarctic, save the rainforest from the axe or our cultural freedoms from multinational corporations (well, I might just have an opinion worth listening to about that last subject ...) But seriously: how can someone who spends her days changing dashes to parentheses and then to commas have the inside track on anything of world-shaking import? Writers are like mushrooms, thriving best in moldy basements, where they are happiest checking facts and doing the cryptic crossword puzzle. Don't bring them up, blinking, into the merciless light of day, where they will have to reveal their ignorance to people with more money than they, people who have different kinds of shoes for every kind of sport.
What those well-shod folk don't recognize about writers is that we write to learn about things, not to teach them to others. We write to find out what it is we're writing about and you read for the same reason, to find out what it is you're reading to find out. We're all just asking questions here, and what questions deserve are answers. Not opinions.