THIS I BELIEVE
This I believe: an opinion is the most overrated thing in the world.
The Constitution, especially the First Amendment, grants citizens the right of free expression, especially the lone pamphleteer’s right to stand on the street corner and declare the mayor a crook. Bloggers enjoy the same freedom. The Founding Fathers would approve.
But grants of legal rights are not guarantors of responsibility. Our moral, political and popular cultures confront uninformed opinions. Ubiquitous opinion polls perhaps should be called impressions polls or attitude polls, for they do not always measure informed opinion. Sadly, however, simplistic polls often seem to steer politics and civic discourse.
Opinions throughout history have led often toward bigotry, demagoguery, and xenophobia. After four decades in daily journalism I know how the white heat of prejudice and the stealth of self-interest form many fierce opinions. My career was spent trying to stamp down such apostasy, with some success, I hope.
Our most recent example of opinion versus thought was the political whirlwind spun by the Dubai Ports incident, a time when unexamined opinion posed as certain concern for security. No more than a few hours of research, debate, and intellectual inquiry showed that the ports argument was being waged on the wrong turf of politics and not America’s national security.
Malignant opinions fueled McCarthyism and all sides of the Vietnam conflict. Malignancy of opinion held the United States back from World War II until Pearl Harbor and the threat of Nazi victory. Today, thoughtful men and women must struggle with Iraq, and opinions may ebb and flow with each week’s polls, but that does not equate with intellectual honesty.
Intellectual honesty has buttressed our politics, long term if not short term. Intellectual honesty means this: Do I hold my view so thoughtfully and honestly that it can stand the furnace of the contrary? Do I know what I am talking about? Do I respect my intellectual opponent?
Let us say that my best friend in high school and I went to different colleges. We studied the same subjects, we weighed the same problems. We disagreed, even as friends, over a particular issue but we strove to understand each other’s arguments and beliefs, often formed through different cultures.
Only when you can grasp your friend’s argument fully, and argue it fairly, can you claim ownership of your point of view and belief: more than an opinion but the full understanding of an honest and mature mind. One might fairly ask if intellectual calisthenics could smooth such disputes as the western powers versus Iran and nuclear power. To say the Iranians have no point of view is arrogance, potentially fatal arrogance. Nothing is free, even the free exchange of ideas, which needs the hard work of intellectual honesty.
Opinionated men and women should ask themselves this humbling question: Is that fact I believe to be a fact in fact a fact?
Intellectual honesty means so much more than ill-formed opinion, and this I believe.
Submitted March 27, 2006