Contrary to popular belief, your opinion may not matter

There is a severe problem with debate in this nation. We are either debating an issue that has been settled a long time ago, like abortion, or we’re too busy arguing philosophy with people who know nothing of philosophy beyond what their pastor shares with them in the off times they make it to church (instead of actually talking real world issues). Discussion seems to rarely if ever happen – one or both sides have already made up their mind so discussion just devolves into a shouting match and a continual regurgitation of old, fallacious talking points. One side decides to dig in their heels and refuse to budge no matter how much reason and facts and expert opinion is thrown at them. And for some reason, in public discourse here in the United States, we feel we have some obligation to lend an ear to these people and pretend that their opinion matters at all – at the cost of actual progress, maybe even lives.

Don’t misunderstand me – I eagerly encourage differing opinions and perspectives (indeed, in many ways this is the central theme of this blog) – however, to lend credence to everyone and their mother who thinks they are an authority on a subject creates an intellectual black hole that is more concerned with appeasement and ill conceived attempts at pseudo-“fairness” than actually finding solutions. Such misplaced efforts are not only a waste but might even be dangerous – once you set aside a place at the dining table for the crazies they’ll be there every night expecting a meal.

An artist's rendering of a debate about marriage equality. Courtesy NASA.

An artist’s rendering of a debate about marriage equality. Courtesy NASA.

There is another, similar phenomenon that suggests that changing an opinion or even admitting fault on any level is betrayal of character weakness. As if we’re all supposed to be born with morality and opinions on every issue already made up in our minds, politicians are frequently slammed for “flip flopping” on an issue. Granted, I am not the least to be skeptical of a politician’s change in stance (since, in our system, morality seems to come to politicians when it can create a publicity stunt) and respect conviction, but there is no gain in remaining eternally rigid. Here’s an example:

Last week we solemnly acknowledged the tenth anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq, something seen almost universally as a mistake started by lies – yet Donald Rumsfeld  declared, by way of Twitter no less, that the invasion was an act of “liberating 25 mil Iraqis.” I’m sure if they had access to computers or reliable power they’d thank you Mr. Rumsfeld; glad to see you haven’t changed a bit.

Nice try little girl, but much like Mr. Rumsfeld, this boulder might take millions of years to change position. Photo by Donna Weeden.

Nice try little girl, but much like Mr. Rumsfeld, this boulder might take millions of years to change position. Photo by Donna Weeden.

But not all of our friends on the right are so rigid, instead opting for pragmatism. As Republicans assess the failures of last November’s elections, many are beginning to acknowledge that their party’s non-inclusion of minority groups and hardline stance on their issues, like immigration reform, are a problem in a nation of a shrinking white male majority. Perhaps surprisingly, Fox News, the 24-hour news channel notoriously derided as the go-to echo chamber for right-wingers, has seen this writing on the wall and have softened some of their views such as immigration. But some of their most loyal viewers, the right wing Tea Party group, have taken to boycotting Fox over what they see as an unacceptable turn to the Left – away from their desired echo chamber.

So when this happens it’s hard to not want to throw in the towel and give up on discussion in this country – when even right-wingers find the ironically dubbed “fair and balanced” Fox News to be too leftist. Though the boycotts won’t be likely to change Fox News CEO Roger Ailes’s evolving views on immigration and the GOP, don’t forget that they’re still a legitimate political force and are even going to be getting their own right-wing network this year.

I don't see any tea at all. Photo courtesy Fibonacci Blue.

I don’t see any tea at all. Photo courtesy Fibonacci Blue.

We have a discourse problem in this nation. Seeking to represent the interests of Tea Party radicals as “fair and balanced” has been the problem. The United States is always arguing over an issue that most of the rest of our first world peers have resolved; instead of following their examples as a possible road map those in opposition are still granted equal say on policy discussion and their opinions treated as legitimate if not more important than an expert’s. Ted Nugent is the go-to celebrity expert for right-wing anti-Obama indignation and hyperbole on the gun control debate, instead of one of the thousands of well-respected criminologists in the nation.

It’s fine to have your own opinion, but unless you are an expert or can back up your position with that of other experts then you should refrain from taking an immovable stance on an issue. In the scientific community often times there are issues on which a consensus has been reached– take, for example, climate change. Despite an incredibly overwhelming consensus by climate researchers and everyone related on its reality and dangers, this nation has done very little on the issue – probably because there are so many Americans and politicians who think they know better than climatologists.

I think there’s a strong degree of anti-intellectualism and that comes along with the arrogance that allows someone to believe data and scientific consensus is wrong and they are right. There is a seemingly ubiquitous notion that being right is more important than finding practical solutions and implementing progress. Despite hearing almost daily of gun violence in the United States and statistical information that strongly supports certain conclusions, people would rather engage in a philosophical discussion over the rights of the citizen and the balance of power between state and federal levels – than what can be done to save lives. Despite this being a specific discussion many thousands Americans already fought and died over (that Civil War thing, whatever that was), solutions still cannot seem to be allowed to move forward. Australia, arguably the most similar nation to the United States in the world, had a gun problem then solved it with regulation – your philosophy and fear is nice, but we’ve got data upon data.

It’s time to stop letting special interests have a seat at the opinion table. It’s time to stop listening to old white men talk about what women should do with their bodies. It’s time to stop listening to how giving rights to a group will take another’s away. It’s time to stop listening to those who cry loudly and throw temper tantrums and demand civil, constructive discussion. If you have to yell your opinion and cannot take the time to listen to rational opposition then you’ve forfeited your seat at the table.

And you have to remember you, yes you Ms. or Mr. Reader, are not an expert on everything. You don’t have all the answers and while you may have some inkling or some thoughts on the subject, it doesn’t mean it’s right. Be open to new information or perspectives and realize that no one’s really got anything figured out for certain and that those who say they do definitely don’t.

But we can’t let this paralyze us either, otherwise we’re spinning our wheels in the mud again. Any issue approached with an open mind and a willingness to create dialogue can be solved if that is the goal.

As one of my favorite pearls of internet wisdom goes, “Don’t feed the trolls.” Because even silly trolls can grow up to be big enough to stop you from crossing the bridge.