Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Anatomy of Opinion

Film director Michael Moore created a stir with his “I was taught that snipers are cowards” comment in response to the movie “American Sniper”, and there have been plenty of opinions written about why Michael Moore is right and why he is wrong.  Moore, however, was not necessarily expressing his own opinion.  Rather he was perpetuating an opinion offered to him from his childhood.  That is, from an early age he was conditioned to believe a thing.  At least, that was his story.

“If I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you.”  Movie line, “GI Jane”

One might say, then, that Moore has embraced the opinion of another without properly vetting that opinion or drawing his own conclusion based on his own research and analysis.  Had he ever met a sniper?  For that matter, has Michael Moore ever met a soldier, a Marine, a sailor, an airman?  More specifically, has Mr. Moore bothered to sit down with combat veterans?  Has he ever taken the time to understand these men and women are the ones standing between his opinion and a system that will tell him what opinions he may express?

It is said that a lie becomes the truth only when we decide to accept something we've “heard” without question.  We are also inclined to pass on this new “information” without going directly to the source for clarification, choosing instead to believe what we've “heard” based on … what?  The source?  Or the substance?  Do we more readily embrace and share derogatory information than uplifting news, especially when it is only something we've “heard” about another whom we may not particularly like?

“Who is the more foolish: the fool, or the fool who follows the fool?”  Obi-Wan Kenobi, “Star Wars, episode IV: A New Hope”

The Bible’s Book of Proverbs expresses the same sentiment about those who believe anything without question, but the wisdom of the Scriptures also holds that those who believe and pass on information from “fools” are at least as foolish as the one expressing an opinion as fact.  Yet even Christians gleefully get on board with the whole idea of sharing unvetted and unconfirmed “information” while completely ignoring not only scriptural wisdom but also a direct Commandment: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16 NKJV).  And yes, it does matter that one knows whether the information is false.

The “72 virgins” westerners gleefully promote as the corpus which drives Islamist suicidal/homicidal maniacs to their deaths (while taking many innocents with them) is a careless interpretation of what is actually written in the Quran (78:33).  As it is with so many other translations to English, there are few word-for-word translations from Arabic to English just as there can be no reliable word-for-word translation from Hebrew to English. 

Yet we profess our “scholarship” by promoting this false notion.  I challenged a newspaper columnist who wrote constantly about this very topic.  When he was challenged, he responded simply (via e-mail) that “it’s true”.  When I asked him to cite his source (he failed to do so in the article in question, only perpetuating what he had “heard”), I heard not another word.  A “fool who follows a fool” is himself the greatest among fools, is he not?  What rubbed me the wrong way was not merely that the writer could not/would not cite a reliable source but that the writer was being paid to write such nonsense as political opinion as an employee of that publication!  An opinion that perpetuates false information misses the substance of what it means to have an opinion.

This exchange was more than a few years back.  The sting of 9/11 was still fresh in the hearts and minds of many, so nearly anything written against Islam in general was considered golden and sacred truth.  It was during this period, in fact, when I purchased an English-language translation of the Quran.  I was not (and still am not) fascinated with Islam specifically, but I found it difficult to believe the things I had “heard” about Islam after 9/11.  What I have discovered since is little more than a perversion of what is actually written (not unlike the way too many Christians pervert what is actually written in the Bible). 

Make no mistake.  I, like many, have plenty of opinions about many things; and like so many others, I am at least as guilty of sharing something I “heard”.  It often is, however, that what I “heard” is directly conflicted with something someone else “heard” about the same subject.  This should be our first clue; that what we've “heard” does not mesh in the slightest with what someone else “heard”.  That in itself should stop the conversation for lack of real substance.  Yet it often only fuels the fire and hardens our resolve to defend what we've “heard” because even though the information may not be reliable or even true, it has now become not the information itself but our credibility which is on the line.  This, I think, is why it only gets worse, never better; few willing to admit that what they “heard” may have been misrepresented, misunderstood, or completely false.

The latest thing “heard” is the release of the movie based on the book entitled, “Fifty Shades of Grey”.  It has come to be referred to as “mommy porn” because women seem to be the primary readers.  Now that the movie is out (on Valentine’s Day, no less!), even more is being said about the exploitative nature of the intimate acts between two consenting adults (in a word, bondage) – except the only one being bound is the woman.  The man controls the act; the woman only gives her consent (or so I've “heard).

Now we can argue about whether the story is about bondage, control, sex, or exploitation; and we can argue about what is appropriate between consenting adults behind closed doors.  Both, in my humble opinion, miss the point entirely.  Yet it is only an opinion I can offer based strictly on what I've “heard” because I've not read the book (and don’t plan to), and I've not seen the movie (also don’t plan to).

So if/when I am asked my opinion about the subject, I am compelled to ask which “subject” is on the table.  If it is the book itself (or the movie), regardless of my opinion, it would serve most well to remain silent.

As with Islam (and many other subjects), what I do not know can in no way be constructive in a conversation; and my opinion may matter even less because it may not be my very own “opinion” being offered but, rather, an opinion I was taught to have from many different sources.  As it is unfair for Michael Moore to denigrate all snipers and combat veterans and capitalists and Republicans based only on what he thinks rather than on what he knows (especially as a wealthy capitalist himself), so it is also unfair for any of us to allow confusion between what we think and what we know with absolute certainty.

There is nothing wrong with having an opinion, of course, and there is nothing wrong with expressing an opinion when called upon.  What is wrong is failing to recognize and understand where that opinion actually comes from, and whether or not there is any truth to what we share. 

Like the human body’s anatomical make-up, an opinion must have a structured level of substance that offers a perspective; but like the human body, if there are significant parts missing, the body itself will struggle to function and may come up short.  Those who are missing body parts do compensate magnificently, but their efforts – unlike an uninformed opinion – are not in vain nor are the valiant efforts an outright lie.

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