The value of 'sitting on the fence'

An essay on championing those with no opinion

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“The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, and breeds reptiles of the mind.”
― William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell


Back when I was a university student embarking on my own voyage of self-discovery, I became sensitised to the value of ‘having an opinion’, or at least appearing to have one. For a start, it was an assessment criteria - a legitimate gradable part of the curriculum curiously referred to within official circles as “knowledge application skills”. It implied that opinionated students were more engaged and invested in the material and more likely to offer a coherent take on an issue or subject. Some have even leveraged the opportunity to monetise software packages for class-opinion measurement, to reel out the ‘quiet’ kids from the more boisterous ones.

An opinion was also often seen as evidence of ‘critical thinking’ - yes that old golden nugget from pedagogical folklore. ‘Critical thinking’, they said, would shield us from the insidious influence of media narratives and it involved, at least in my stint at university, having an opinion on the content you consume. Possessing an opinion, it was believed, provided one with a filtering mechanism to discern between useful and useless information.

In fact, as a lecturer, I once had a student desperately stop me in the hallway after class to justify why he ‘failed’ at expressing his views in a reflection session I just lead on the 1941 Orson Welles’ masterpiece, “Citizen Kane” - he just didn’t have an opinion that warranted further discussion. There was a look of frustration in his eyes laced with resignation and despondence, probably motivated by the fear of being marked down. But why?

Orson Welles himself once quite candidly admitted that the creative mastery behind “Citizen Kane” was driven by the conviction that there isn’t always a great opinion behind every great idea. Sometimes, ignorance illuminates rather than obscures - it preserves the promise of possibility. Orson said it himself:

“I didn’t know what you couldn’t do. I didn’t deliberately set out to invent anything. It just seemed to me, ‘Why not?’ There is a great gift that ignorance has to bring to anything, you know. That was the gift I brought to [Citizen] Kane… ignorance”

- Orson Welles on making Citizen Kane

We live in a culture where one of the greatest social disgraces is not having an opinion. In an ideal world, there shouldn’t be a stigma associated with ‘sitting on the fence’. Unfortunately it has emerged as a signifier of weakness and intellectual apathy. The fear of being irrelevant in an attention-starved society encourages us to form our “opinions” based on superficial impressions or the borrowed ideas of others, without investing the time and thought that cultivating true conviction necessitates. We then go around asserting these donned opinions and lugging them around as anchors to our own reality.

With the pervasiveness of social media, and the accompanying premium placed on having the loudest voice, possessing an opinion has also become a stepping stone to achieving some sort of virtual legitimacy (one that comes with an accompanying dopamine hit), no matter how obscure or inane.

But through my scholastic pursuits and writing, I’ve fervently expressed the value of sitting on the proverbial fence, with the hope that my modest contributions will banish the unfair level of disparagement directed to those who simply have nothing to say.

There is a futility to what I like to call, ‘opinion-worship’ - a fanatical compulsion to take a side on any matter and have that publicly communicated for a temporary dose of self-validation.

Revered American philosopher, Susan Sontag has been a guiding light for me in cutting through the mass idolisation of opinions and the opiniated. Sontag’s words radiate an aching recognition of our tendency to form instant opinions and to mistake for informed opinions what are really reactions to reactions. She observes:

There is something vulgar about public dissemination of opinions on matters about which one does not have extensive first-hand knowledge. If I speak of what I do not know, or know hastily, this is mere opinion-mongering.

The vulgarisation of public discourse through the careless and haphazard sharing of opinions has been perpetuated by voice-centric platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. It has led to the predominance of ideological echo chambers.

A casual survey on any private Twitter profile will show you that one is more likely to engage with opinions that resonate with their own because that is the safest and less disruptive route. On occasion, verbal spats may ensue between people on opposite sides of any given ideological divide, but these altercations often dissolve into a circular abyss of nothingness with each party too caught up in preserving their fragile cyber-egos. The opinion in question is then rather unceremoniously (and ironically) cast aside because the discursive battle isn’t really about rational debate. It is about ‘winning’. And this leads me to my next point.

Gamification.

We now live in an era where every publicised statement, meaningless aphorism or mundane take, is subjected to a gamified logic, where the unspoken aim is to amass the most number of likes, re-tweets and shares on any given opinion. Entire careers are built upon rampant opinion-slinging in the regular churn of click-bait articles and viral tweets. But the ludicrousness of this isn’t about the metrics used to measure the popularity of opinion. It is the simple fact that the laws of the game are flawed to begin with.

A celebrity who offers an opinion on a totally prosaic and monotonous subject will inevitably garner more visibility and ‘likes’ than say a carefully considered and nuanced opinion from Mr Bang-Average Joe. The actual opinion matters less than the social capital of the speaker who says it. I mean Joe Biden could express his love for toast and baked beans, and it would most probably be read as a cryptic reflection on his foreign policy. Opinions are malleable and are often attributed with more authority than it deserves, at least of those that become visible. As such, we should be careful not to condition our self-worth and value on opinions alone.

It is time we championed those with nothing to say, because it takes courage, especially in a world such as ours, to sit-on-the-fence. It takes an admirable level of stoicism to consider various perspectives without reacting - without taking the bait. The legitimisation of our subjectivity should never rest on who or what we identify with or subscribe to.

There is obviously a sense of self-inflicted hypocrisy in me having an opinion about not having an opinion, but the point of this essay is really to argue that not all ideas and thoughts are worth selling our soul for.

There is to me, a beautiful simplicity in acknowledging that every topic has a colourful background of interconnecting narratives and viewpoints that may never necessarily converge into a single opinion or definitive observation. The random messiness and contradictions of various thoughts and subjects, from the sobriety of world politics (who do you blame?) to the playfulness of celebrity fashion (who is wearing what and why?), are essential in moving our thought processes forward. The bottom line is: opinions immobilise us. They relieve us from the responsibility of confronting uncomfortable situations and decisions and hence leave us trapped in a fixed mould of thinking.

It is time my dear readers to reinstate nuance and lend our support to projects and initiatives that promote reflectiveness and embrace complexity. Because if life is rarely linear, then there is no reason why our take on it should be. The view from the fence is just fine.

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