On being ‘Opinionated’ and ‘Contrary’

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A few weeks ago I read and was struck by a Counterpunch blog by Missy Comley Beattie called ‘I’m Obnoxious’. I was struck by it because I recognised myself as someone too “incompetent to do anything except express frustration with such intensity I’ve become un-fun”. I too have had the internal discussion, telling myself to just let it go for once, just shut up.

The piece has been in my mind again over the past couple of weeks owing to a couple of chats I’ve had with friends and some interactions I’ve seen online. The chats seemed to stem from my recent blog about e-petitions which really riled some people: a friend who shared it on his Facebook was told “shame on you!” for doing so. Many seemed to take the piece as a bad-natured attack on the good intentions of people who perhaps weren’t particularly engaged with the world – the line of reasoning that e-petitions ‘raise awareness’ was certainly the most common rejoinder. The fact that I explicitly didn’t attack e-petitions as a concept in themselves but rather the way in which they are most commonly used was completely lost but, I wondered, was that due to my tone?

Following from this, the chats with some friends were strange and uncomfortable. I was told that it wasn’t ‘my place’ to ‘correct people’, that it seemed like I had a chip on my shoulder, that I was too contrary, too opinionated. I had to ‘respect’ that people had different experiences and journeys and learned in different ways. The natural instinct when faced with this is, of course, to become defensive and shut down, which I was conscious of and tried to avoid (I failed). I’ve thought a lot since about what was said, however, because it really gets to the core of a lot of the things I’ve been writing about for the past couple of years.

I’ve written, for example, about relationships being spaces where “we seek to see our own version of our identity reflected back at us”, a kind of narcissism where we make no effort to develop empathy. Make no mistake, empathy clearly isn’t necessarily something that comes naturally to us – it’s something we practice and it’s arguably in decline. It’s easy to go from this to speaking about the rightward drift of politics in the Western world but here I’m interested in how this manifests in small, daily ways. Empathy isn’t just about feeling compassion for those less fortunate than yourself, it’s also respecting others as equals. I don’t even mean people in Uganda or Russia here, though clearly that’s relevant – I just mean the people you interact with on a daily basis. Part of that respect is surely feeling able to debate and challenge in the understanding that each has something to offer?

Now, believe me, I completely understand and still fall victim to the impulse to want to ‘win’ a debate when challenged. Indeed a big part of the reason why I’ve written about this stuff so much is that I recognise myself from a few years ago as one of those people who had the ‘right’ opinions and enjoyed the approval of peers for frequently voicing them. Yet as soon as I started moving away from this (kicked off by the Johann Hari plagiarism business and the responses to the London riots) the response was furious and fascinating. Terry Pratchett once wrote that:

People like to be told what they already know.  Remember that.  They get uncomfortable when you tell them new things.  New things…well, new things aren’t what they expect.  They like to know that, say, a dog will bite a man.  That is what dogs do.  They don’t want to know that a man bites a dog, because the world is not supposed to happen like that.

That sounds arrogant, I know, but I don’t take ‘new things’ to mean that you are blowing the mind of the sheeple with your FACTS. Rather it just means having thoughts and opinions which go against the dominant and expected – and in the past few years, I’ve seen time and time again that many people really do not like it when this happens. Hence my interest when I discovered Sara Ahmed’s concept of ‘bad feeling‘ where anyone ‘out of line with an affective community’ is pathologised and alienated. The problem becomes them rather than anything they are saying.

Of course, tone is relevant and it’s all too easy to come across as arrogant and superior. On the other hand, however, we feel little concern for this when arguing about popular culture. We’ll happily insult each other’s taste in music, films, books and argue to the bitter end about them. We as a culture have little problem with mocking and belittling celebrities whom we perceive to be there ‘for us’.  Yet this is all done with a safe, ironic distance where we don’t really think what we’re saying is important. Once we’re onto ‘serious’ topics like politics, this goes out the window.

Instead it is replaced with a very odd dynamic where we feel absolutely entitled to our opinions and to enjoy the approval and validation which can come from expressing them, but are unwilling to have them seriously challenged. This is particularly noticeable on social media where people will write indignant statuses about Vladmir Putin or whatever, rack up the ‘likes’ ‘retweets’ and approving comments, and woe betide anyone who breaks the consensus. It’s perceived to be better to keep quiet than to challenge any of these opinions, as they are almost viewed as being the essential ‘core’ of the person expressing them. This is even true if the opinion contains flatly incorrect statements. The response to having these challenged is never ‘perhaps I should read more about this’, it’s always ‘this person is a dick for pointing this out’. This has been one of the core impulses at the bottom of the ‘rows’ over intersectionality, with the challenged frequently resorting to claiming that they are being ‘bullied’. The idea is that the people challenging them don’t really care about the issue at hand but instead just want to prove their superiority.

Social media is obviously a particular example because so much social context is missing that it’s a lot easier for an exchange to become adversarial. Yet the ‘real life’ contexts where we feel able to debate these things shrink ever further, as avoiding ‘serious’ subjects becomes expected of you not only at work but increasingly in social interactions. So many of us vent on social media – and that is surely why it matters that we feel able to challenge, debate, even argue? Is it really the end of the world if that happens? If we can try to remove our ego from the equation as much as possible, this seems to be one of the only ways we are ever going to progress in our understanding of the world. As we progress, we then think of different ways of expressing ourselves. We don’t have to have strident opinions on everything – instead we can seek out informed opinions on those things we know little about. For all the talk of me being opinionated etc, I do my utmost to avoid spouting off about things I know nothing about. You won’t have found me telling everyone what I think about the situation in Ukraine over the past few weeks, for example. Instead I’ve just been reading as much about it as I can. This urge to speak about everything is one of my big problems with the commentariat and also where much of my ‘contrariness’ comes from. I write because it helps me think things through (and yes, I largely enjoy sharing that work with people afterwards) so I tend to see no point in writing variations on dominant themes, even though this would be a much easier way to an audience. There are enough people out there writing good things on issues they know far more about than I do so, in the end, my blog is always a personal one. My tone is perhaps more belligerent than necessary a lot of the time but I think that’s partly a response to my experiences described above, where people really have responded with fury to me changing my mind about certain things. Perhaps you do internalise this and make it a part of your identity to head it off. I’ve lost friends over it and am well aware that I’m perceived by many to be a bit of an over-opinionated bitter dick. But I’m trying. I don’t want to ever reach a position where I feel that I know everything and don’t need to keep pushing myself forward. However bad it may sometimes feel, I want to keep being challenged and keep being reminded that I am not my opinions which, in the end, really don’t matter all that much. So I apologise if I know you and you ever feel like I’m being superior with you.  Akala put it best in the brilliant Find No Enemy:

It may sound like I’m bitter but in fact, truth be told, I am quite the opposite
I wake everyday and am overwhelmed
Just to be alive and be like no one else
And the sheer weight of the thought of space
Is enough to keep my little ego in place
All that we chase and try to replace all along it was right in our face
The only way we can ever change anything
Is to look in the mirror and find no enemy