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Have Fewer Opinions

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You have too many. That’s just my opinion, of course. But I’m serious about it. I know because I have too many opinions. I actually feel obligated to have more opinions than I do.

Do you ever feel this pull to be more opinionated about more topics?

In their dated but insightful book How to Watch TV News, Neil Postman and Steve Powers landed a thought that felt so freeing to read:

“Reduce by one third the number of opinions you feel obligated to have. One of the reasons many people are addicted to watching TV news is that they feel under pressure to have an opinion about almost everything.”

– Neil Postman & Steve Powers, How to Watch TV News, 1993

Depending on your age, you may need to swap out “social media” for “TV news,” but the point works either way.

I have read so many stinking articles on the Mueller report: what he’s trying to say in it, why he said what he did and why he left out what he left out, whether or not Barr was accurate in his summary, and why every single writer’s take on it is the most important thing in the world. I keep feeling this pressure like I need to know! But I don’t.

The problem is bigger than social media. As a pastor, whenever I’m talking to someone in a struggling marriage or in a difficult parenting situation, or even when I’m talking to a recent high school or college graduate, I warn them: Listen, you’re going to have to figure out what God is calling you to do here. But you should also know that a lot of people are going to share their opinions with you about what you should do. Most of them mean well, but most of these opinions will not be helpful.

What is it that makes us feel like we have to have an opinion about what other people should be doing? What do you think about the Mueller report? What’s your cap for how much a pastor should spend on shoes? Who should be watching Game of Thrones? And coming soon to everything you’ll see, hear, read, and watch for an entire year: who should become (or stay) the next President?

“Can I ask you to give up the opinions you’ve done almost zero research on or to stop posting on the issues you think you know about just because someone ranted about it on Facebook?”

It’s not uncommon for me to scroll through Twitter and see several statements like, “If you’re a pastor and you don’t speak out on ______ this week, then you’re part of the problem.” Or some variation thereof. It’s hard to read that and not think, Oh shoot, yeah, maybe I should say something about that. But I don’t know a ton about that thing. I’d better learn about it real quick so I can share my opinion.

What if we really did try to hold 33% fewer opinions? Honestly, think of how many opinions you find yourself expressing that you’ve done almost zero research on. Think of the issues you think you know about just because someone ranted about it on Facebook. Think of the people you don’t know very well but about whom you have a pretty strong opinion. Maybe we could let all of those opinions go.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if the only opinions we held were hard-earned? If we tried to use phrases like “I’m not sure” or “I haven’t looked into that” or “I could be wrong here” when speaking about issues where we haven’t sought out multiple voices and read multiple articles and done some real soul-searching and engaged in some respectful dialogue? You’ll all be fine—better, actually—without my lazy, ill-informed take on the Mueller report. What opinions could you spare your friends, family, and the online community?

I fully acknowledge that there is such a thing as a Silent Jackass, and I am often that guy. Sometimes we need to roll up our sleeves and learn about someone else’s struggle so we can help. Don’t let some vague pressure force you into these opinions, let love for real people pull you in. Loving your neighbor will mean understanding what her experience is like. And that takes time. But if it’s time you’re invested in loving someone, it’s worth it.

Can we give this a try? It might help with how awful and heated and shallowly divisive things have been lately. But truly, that’s just my opinion.

Why Can’t We Have Rational Dialogue?

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Have you ever made the mistake of trying to change someone’s opinion on Twitter, Facebook, or a blog comment? It’s a crazy trap that so many of us have fallen into. We lay out our best arguments only to be attacked, yelled down, and misunderstood. If we’re not careful, it’s easy to get sucked into responding, which only makes matters worse.

Why is this? Why is it so impossible to dialogue and persuade?

Jonathan Haidt gives a compelling piece of the answer in his book The Righteous Mind. If you have the time, this book is worth reading. Haidt is a great writer. His concepts are convincing and the studies he interacts with are fascinating.

Here’s Haidt’s overall contention: Judgment and justification are separate processes. It’s that simple. That’s a profound statement, but I know it’s confusing. Read the book, but I’ll unpack that a little bit.

We all think we make moral judgments (what’s good, what’s bad) on the basis of carefully considered arguments. In other words, we THINK that we begin with reason and end by making a judgment. But Haidt contends that the exact opposite is true. What happens in reality, he says, is that we make a moral judgment almost instantly, and then we employ our reasoning skills to justify the judgment we’ve already made.

Perhaps that sounds exactly right to you. It explains the “confirmation bias” we all have trouble escaping. I find it extremely helpful in explaining my own actions and those I observe in others. But if you need more convincing or explaining, keep reading.

Haidt describes a study done by Alexander Todorov in which he flashed the images of two faces on a screen in front of subjects who were unfamiliar with those faces. The subjects were then asked which person seemed more competent. What Todorov did not tell the subjects is that the two faces were opponents in senatorial and gubernatorial races. 70% of the time, the candidate that subjects deemed more competent (a judgment they made in seconds) also went on to win the election.

“We think we begin with reason and end by making a judgment. But Haidt contends that the opposite is true: We make an instant moral judgment, then we employ reason to justify the judgment we’ve already made.”

What’s going on here? The participants in this study couldn’t determine anything about the person’s positions, character, beliefs, etc. But they did what people do: they made a snap judgment that determined whether or not they thought that person was competent. And their choice was America’s choice most of the time! The implication is that as much as we believe we’re weighing a candidate’s positions and character, we’re usually just voting for the person we’re predisposed to like (a decision we make instantly).

But once we’ve made a snap judgment, we instantly begin employing our reasoning to explain why we made that choice.

Haidt refers to this process as “the intuitive dog and its irrational tale.” We decide intuitively, then our mental faculties kick in to provide that rationality (which Haidt says is so unlike “rationality” as we think of it that it’s more like irrationality). He puts it more plainly by saying, “intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.”

Our reasoning is less like a philosopher that employs wisdom to decide where we should go and more like a press secretary who has to stand before the world and explain the President’s policy decisions—decisions which she had no role in developing.

Is there any hope, then? Are we all just locked into our own intuitions, completely unable to dialogue or help each other act in wisdom rather than pure intuition?

Haidst sees hope in other studies which show that when a subject is given time to reflect, their rational faculties play a larger role in shaping their judgments. Do you see the implication there?

When we allow ourselves to respond quickly, we’re basing it all on unreasoned intuition. When we slow down enough to reflect, weigh, and consider, we give our rationality a seat at the table in deciding what we should do.

Unfortunately, most of our decisions are made quickly. Our opinions of people are formed in seconds. Our consideration of candidates and character and theological positions are more knee-jerk reactions than carefully weighed conclusions. So we rarely give ourselves a chance to slow down and form a healthy opinion. We just listen to the news station our tribe has taught us to tune into.

The truth is, you’ve already written this entire blog off, or you’ve immediately accepted it. You knew what you thought about it pretty early on. And that’s okay. But it helps to understand the process. And when we recognize the (ir)rational tale being wagged by the intuitive dog, we can choose to slow down. To engage in dialogue. To do some research or ask some questions or—what’s best—get to know some real people. Maybe then we can all have some constructive dialogue about the things that matter.