Last spring, before Vice President Mike Pence spoke at the 2019 Commencement, students everywhere debated his attendance heatedly. Responses ranged from “Dude, I wish I got to have the VP at my Commencement!” to “I’m skipping graduation in protest.” It seemed like everyone everywhere had a scrupulous opinion about what was ultimately — with all due respect to the Vice President — a rather vanilla performance.
But it raised a question: Why does everyone have an opinion about everything?
The moment I wake up, I’m scrolling through Twitter, reading the news, and reading about the latest controversy. Something happened on the other side of the world 20 seconds ago, and 40 journalists have already tweeted their condemnation for it.
The Notre Dame Cathedral in France began to burn on Monday, and tweeters in Texas immediately debated what should be done about it.
Some things are just not partisan, but when President Donald Trump says just about anything, everyone compulsively takes sides.
In a day and age when everything is accessible to us, we’re expected to have thoughts about everything. We’re expected to have an opinion, whether we know about the issue or not. This provokes some of us to study more, so that we can have educated opinions. But it’s impossible to know everything about every controversy that erupts.
The bold assumption that we should all be experts contributes to an environment that actually discourages our eagerness to learn.
“‘What is the Tiger’s Woods?’ — a 6th grader in my math class who apparently pays as much attention to the news as he does to fractions,” one sanctimonious Hillsdale student tweeted recently.
The message is clear across all platforms: Be informed maybe, but have the right opinions always. Those who don’t are thrown into the lions’ den — or the “Tiger’s Woods,” as it were — of social media doxxing.
We see it on a smaller scale, too, in our everyday conversations.
“How have you never seen this meme?” someone asked me recently. I tried to tell her politely that I waste my time on “more important things,” but it was useless. There was some internet discussion about the meme, and she wanted to know which side I was taking. Never mind the fact that I’d only just learned about it.
Even our senses of humor are measured by a secular world that is surprisingly Puritanical in exacting its sense of justice. But nothing is worse than the person who says nothing, because there are no words on which to pounce.
The speed at which we respond is also troubling. There’s no time to become educated about the specifics of a Paris cathedral burning; the hottest takes are the first ones thrown on Twitter. You better hope your diplomatic thumbs are poised for the moment disaster strikes, lest your 30 followers be disappointed by not seeing your take on it.
The antidote to this is, of course, education: what we’re here to do. When I asked for his advice to an aspiring journalist last week, a wise man told me I should focus on learning first.
“Worry about opinions later,” novelist and political commentator Andrew Klavan said.
Initially, I took this to mean in my writing as a journalist, but really, it’s universal: the impetus to speak, and speak now, has got us spewing so many knee-jerk opinions, it’s a wonder we haven’t gotten arthritis yet. Social media has us all feeling the need for speed, and in an effort to deliver our word first, we’ve dumped knowledge at the roadside.
Opinions are important. Nineteenth century British poet Charles Mackay emphasized this in his poem “No Enemies,” in which he smartly pops the bubble of those who claim to have no foes.
“He who has mingled in the fray of duty that the brave endure must have made foes,” Mackay wrote. “If you have none, small is the work that you have done.”
But there’s a difference between cowardice and humility. Cowardice keeps silent out of fear; humility keeps silent when he cannot say anything useful. I can think of few things less useful than the first thought that comes to my mind when something inflames me.
Our modern lexicon is full of useless and uneducated opinions, and just plain bad ones, too. Instead of adding to the noise — instead of spewing thoughts with conviction about an issue we don’t understand, as though our intellectual worth depended on it — we should take the time to learn about the topic at stake.
Break the knee-jerk habit of having to have an opinion about everything. Your joints will thank you.
Carmel Kookogey is a sophomore studying Politics and Journalism.