Everyone Has An Opinion

This is primarily directed at my US based readers, but I think it will apply to anyone. My father-in-law shared something this weekend that really resonated with me. Hopefully I can say this without stepping on someone's toes, which is nearly impossible in the internet era...

He said "everyone has an opinion". There are incredibly strong opinions about family separation on the US/Mexico border, strong opinions about the broader immigration debate, strong opinions about gun control, strong opinions about Syria, strong opinions about Russian influence in US elections, strong opinions about how we view the press, of course the strongest opinions on Donald Trump, and on and on. I think you get the idea?

My father-in-law's point was that most of these are extremely complex issues, with shades of gray and loaded with ambiguity. He had a good thought experiment where if he was the King of America, how would he resolve - say - the immigration debate. What is the exact right number of immigrants to allow in? Like I suspect most of us if we're honest with ourselves, he didn't know what that exact number should be. I mean, how do you know?

It's been well-covered in behavioral psychology and it's spinoff, behavioral economics. The less information we have, the more likely we are to form a strong opinion on something. This day and age, we're exposed to constant headlines and sound bites, but we rarely dig deep enough to really know the nuances of these complex situations. And of course, on the internet, many of us receive our news and data via meme... Not ideal for crafting a well-argued opinion on complex issues that may literally have no correct answer. Add in that it's even easier to shout uninformed opinions to the masses, and we've formed warring tribes that in a lot of cases, aren't entirely sure what they're warring over, except it's the other guys are OTHER.

So, I suspect I got through that without offending anyone. You know why no one was offended? Because you're all assuming I'm talking about those uninformed, ignorant, noisy OTHERS, and not you. Well... I'm talking to you too, and to me.

If we take a breath and think about it, I suspect most people agree. They understand that the internet has made it easier to go shouting about half-formed opinions, and they probably admit somewhere that they've been fooled a time or two by a crocked up meme or headline. But even knowing that, it's pretty hard to combat. These are volatile issues that touch people personally, it's hard NOT to have an opinion, and it's hard NOT to use social media to try and inform people of something you consider important. Just knowing the problem isn't enough to stop it. So, what do we do?

First, I think the most important thing to get over this divisiveness is to admit that we might be wrong. Yeah, by we I mean YOU and ME. We might be wrong on our strongly held opinions. We need to couch our discussion in terms of, "based on the information I have right now, this is what I believe. If someone comes to me with enough compelling facts (remember those?) or strong enough arguments, I'm capable of changing my mind." When two people discuss something on those terms, then real progress can be made. If you cannot change your mind, or you will not allow facts (they're still out there!) to change your view, then you're a huge part of the problem.

Second, you become what you absorb. If you watch CNN or Fox News exclusively, your opinion will reflect what those platforms are telling you. You will becoming a lemming in the tribe. The age of "unbiased" media is gone. It's best to assume every platform these days has some inherent bias, but importantly, that doesn't mean you should shut it off. CNN is leaning left and Fox News is leaning right. Ok, maybe "leaning" is mild, but you get my point. They skew one side because they want to appeal to viewers who skew to one side. They will espouse that one point of view because that is what sells to their viewer base. Importantly, it's not just the OTHER side that's doing it, it's all sides, including the one you are on. To combat that, take in a variety of news sources. Listen to what the other side has to say with an open mind (the only thing I bolded in this post, think about that). You may disagree, and that is Ok, but at least you'll actually know what their argument is from the source, and not a meme. 

Third, watch less news, check it on your phone less often, and take a breather. This is a personal struggle for me, but I think it's an important battle to fight. Just because there is a 24hrs news cycle does not mean you need to consume that news 24hrs a day. Unless it's an issue that personally effects you (ie, you are an immigrant to the US for example), there is simply no point in constantly absorbing that firehose of information, almost all of which is repetition of previously reported stories. Reading 10 articles about something which makes you mad is not going to make you happier as a person...

Fourth, it's Ok to admit you don't know. Modern issues are complex, and very few of us (looking at you Washington, DC!) understand all of the intricacies of any particular problem. That's fine, as long as you acknowledge it. Remember what I said in the first bullet, "based on what I know"? You can have an opinion when you feel suitably informed, but it's frequently even better to Not Have an Opinion! I used to say this to employees on the job, it's empowering when you say, "I don't know". Think about how powerful that is - "I don't know the answer, but I have an open mind and I'm willing to listen".

So, in summary, the internet is full of trolls who have strong, uninformed opinions about everything. We can all agree on that, right? What to do about it:

1) Understand you might be wrong

2) Absorb multiple inputs from diverse sources, and have an open mind to what they are saying

3) Absorb that input less often. Try going outside, if it's been awhile since you've done that

4) Be unafraid to admit you don't know something. It's empowering

If anyone has any additional bullets I should put on here, or you think I'm wrong and that you are never wrong, CONTACT ME and let me know!