A matter of opinion: opinions don’t matter

Getting along in the age of social media

Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’

Isaac Asimov

It is often easy to wonder whether things were better before the advent of social media. We didn’t really need to know what anybody thought about every subject. We could stick to the things we had in common, exchange a few pleasantries and remain blissfully ignorant about the rest.

Things have changed. Friendships are now won and lost over the contents of our ideological portfolio.

Add to this a world in crisis. While it’s nothing new, it has become increasingly complex, far reaching and harder to ignore. The destabilization of the biosphere, the impending collapse of unfettered capitalism and visible unrest around the globe all lead to many of us feeling very unnerved.

Ideologies clash, emotions rise, and heated exchanges ensue. In such a hostile climate, it can be tempting to cling to comforting platitudes – those terse sayings which tend to embody some sort of universal truth, sentimentalizing our concerns or feelings.

One idea which frequently rears its head is that everyone is entitled to their own opinion.

At face value this statement is true, but the often implied meaning is that all ideas are equal. I think this is dangerous reasoning. It’s also a bit of a misnomer. There is a difference between ideology and opinion. Whether grape or strawberry jam is the best to spread on toast, or which sports team has the best jersey are matters of opinion. Whether or not prisons should be privatized for example, is a question rooted in ideology.

If we can agree that some outcomes are good while others are bad, then the ideologies and policies that drive them deserve the same critique.

Ideologies matter.

They are just as material as matter itself. In the same way our brains are made of physical ‘stuff,’ these ideologies also reside in the real world. Ideologies lead to policies, policies to actions, and actions to ultimate outcomes. Whether or not we can predict the outcome is only a matter of ignorance, not evidence that ideologies are impotent. From what else have our current crises been born? We ought to take care in how we choose our ideology – and, if you don’t think you have one, you probably haven’t examined it.

Of course, I’m not advocating a keyboard mashing flame war with everyone who disagrees with me. The importance of getting along and communicating respectfully whenever possible might just be one of those important ideological points. Like any social arena, we should be able to set boundaries and reduce harm by making sure they’re respected. Nothing says we’re obligated to mulishly fling insults all over our personal internet spaces, or fight every battle.

Yet, while conflict is uncomfortable, divisiveness is often a precondition of taking a stand.

Ideologies divide us specifically because they are impactful.

So, as you interact – especially on social media – tread lightly where you can, stand firmly when it counts and most of all, think responsibly.

Mike Innes is a political and philosophical writer, former born-again Christian, atypical skeptic and author of the Jack In The Brain blog.

Published in Volume 68, Number 1 of The Uniter (September 4, 2013)

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