"There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of 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
Look at me: I'm writing an opinion column! That means I can say any old thing I want, and nobody can touch me. Ain't this the life?
I'd wager there are plenty of folks out there who genuinely believe the above paragraph to be true. Given the common understanding of "opinion" in contemporary American society, that shouldn't be surprising.
As a film and theater critic, I've churned out opinion-based writing for the better part of the past 20 years. Consequently, I've often encountered the phrase "That's just your opinion," which I interpret as the way that polite people tell me to go and commit an ergonomically impossible act with myself.
It is also, however, a way of suggesting that all opinion is inherently equal—that the complainant's perspective must be given equal weight by virtue of its being thought, or uttered, or scrawled on a napkin.
And, this, dear friends, is utter bollocks.
For many years, I've had people tell me that it must be wonderful "getting paid to watch movies." I respond that this is not the case, any more than it's the case that a carpenter gets paid to buy lumber; it is a necessary step on the way to producing the thing of value, but it is not the thing of value.
By the same token, it's also true that I don't get paid to have an opinion. I get paid to support an opinion—to bring my years of analyzing art to bear on the work at hand, to present a thesis, and to provide my evidence in support of that thesis. "I liked it" is an opinion, but it's functionally worthless.
It's hard for people to understand, though, that I am making a true statement when I say that their opinion is not necessarily as valid as mine when it comes to analyzing a film or a play. That's not the same as saying their idiosyncratic aesthetic tastes are "wrong." It's just a way of saying that someone who has studied film and theater extensively for decades brings more information to the conversation. My interpretation of whether a given piece works artistically should be given more weight, just as I would hope someone would consider my views on how to handle the threat of ISIS far less seriously than those who have devoted their careers to studying fundamentalist extremism.
Unfortunately, as a society, we have generally abandoned our willingness to consider the evidence and expertise supporting a particular opinion. We're a nation that buys our opinions in bulk, Costco-style, from whatever institution or philosophy provides the foundation for our identity. We turn to our churches or political parties to decide for us what we think about any given matter of controversy or contention.
It was clear we were seeing this phenomenon during the ongoing unrest in Ferguson, Mo., as we quickly built narratives for what was happening based on the way we already saw the world. Any piece of information undermining that pre-existing perspective was brushed aside; any piece of information that bolstered it became another reason to lean back and think, "A-ha, I knew it!"
A generous, humanist response to this phenomenon is sympathy. We all feel overwhelmed by information, and so we narrow down the sources to which we turn based on how reliable we consider them. Of course, "reliable" often means "reinforcing my existing worldview," just as it becomes easy to dismiss any information that comes from other sources as somehow slanted or biased, whereas our own opinions are always completely rational and never influenced by whether it came from "the liberal media" or "the corporate media" or whatever label allows us to feel smug in our bubble of perfect wisdom.
The Isaac Asimov quotation at the beginning of this piece has long been one of my favorites, a call to arms against the absurd notion that all opinions are created equal. But it also misses a far trickier part of the equation: the fact that, in general, people don't think they're ignorant, even when they are. They often believe that their views on climate change, same-sex marriage or immigration are completely informed, because of that one website or talk-show host or religious principle that has never steered them wrong before. They lack the crucial skepticism behind a scientific-method approach to finding truth of any kind—a willingness to assume, if only for a moment, that the opposite is true, just to see what the result would look like.
It's a hard thing to begin the formation of any opinion at the zero point on a scale, allowing for the possibility that truth could lie with equal possibility in either direction. But it's essential to introduce doubt if we want to get anywhere close to the ideal suggested by John Milton when he wrote in Areopagitica that "opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making."
But hey, what do I know? That's just my opinion.