Opinions Weak and Strong

2021-09-24

Continuing a thread that I started to explore earlier this year, I'd like to take a closer look at the intensity of opinions. Here as almost everywhere, there is a continuum: we all have opinions we hold strongly and opinions we hold weakly. Not only do the specific contents of these buckets change over time, but in general the intensity of one's opinions can change over time, too. We're all familiar with the sophomoric young adult who has strong opinions about everything (yes, I resembled that remark). Such an individual can be contrasted with the more mature person, who understands what truly matters in life and doesn't hold strong opinions about matters that are less important or positively unimportant.

More pointedly, it can be helpful to ask yourself: do I hold my opinions, or do my opinions hold me? This touches on the sensitive topic of identity: for some people, their opinions aren't just things that they happen think, but a huge part of who they are. This direction can be quite damaging, both for oneself and (if enough people have their identity tied up with their opinions) for society at large.

For such people, it can be progress not if they give up an opinion entirely but if the intensity of their opinion weakens. It seems to me that if your opinions are a big part of your identity then you also tend to engage in binary thinking: you acknowledge only two ways of perceiving the world, one of which (yours, of course!) is right and good in contrast to the other one, which is wrong and bad or even evil.

In my experience there are several antidotes to binary thinking. One of them is recognizing that it's a multi-causal world: there's never just one cause for any reasonably complex phenomenon in human life. If you can identity multiple causes, you're much less likely to believe that your opinion is completely consistent with the one true cause and therefore completely true. The next step is to see that there is some truth in other opinions on the matter at hand - and that there is not only one opposing viewpoint, but several different perspectives.

Adopting this approach to truth and opinion can take many years, in large measure because it requires a great deal of mental flexibility and a willingness to really listen to what other people believe. (For the avoidance of doubt, I'm not saying that the things other people believe are all equally valid; only that if you consider them empathetically you'll likely find aspects that are worthy of respect.)

Next time we'll look at the deeper dangers of binary thinking and how to avoid them.

(Cross-posted at philosopher.coach.)

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