With the advent of the internet age, we’re experiencing a huge social shift that has been the catalyst for many changes taking place in our culture recently, both positive and negative. Effectively exploring the changes experienced by the millennial generation and their various causes would take dozens of books. I think whenever we endeavor to talk about this brave new world we’re entering into it is imperative we keep these complexities in mind. It is hard to keep balance between acknowledging that any one individual doesn’t possess the authority or ability to have anything more than an opinion on such complex issues, while also not allowing ourselves to become passive in our approach to the world. On one hand, there are many legitimate opinions and on the other hand, good and evil exists in our world and it is our job to live our lives in an endeavor to create a better and more moral world. Opinions are opinions, and some are immoral but the existence of all opinions is both legitimate and necessary.
This might seem like a convoluted and inconclusive paragraph, but here is what I’m getting at: on the spectrum of opinion, we all fall on a scale. On one end are those of us that think our own opinions are the only legitimate things to be believed, and on the other end of the spectrum we have individuals who believe they have no right to a voice because they believe all beliefs are created equal, or they simply have such a dismally low self confidence that they think their own opinions are worthless and therefore refuse to share or speak up for them.
When we think of this approach to opinions and beliefs on a spectrum, it’s clear where it would be best to fall: exactly in the middle. To be too far to the right would be egotistical and ignorant. Of course we aren’t always correct, to believe so would be to delude ourselves into thinking we aren’t subject to the flaws of humanity. To be too attached to our own opinions turns us into idolaters, with ourselves as our own false God. Of course, there are very few individuals who actually suffer from the serious break with reality that would enable one to believe they are exempt from all mistakes, but the truth is that many of us fall closer to the absolute right than the middle.
Then there is the other, perhaps sadder end of the spectrum. Those who believe that their own opinions are unimportant or simply don’t believe they have the right to engage in discourse on anything that is high stakes. These are the people who never speak out in defense of their believes, the people who wouldn’t even think to share a controversial post on Facebook for fear of people knowing they believe in something that is of importance. The passives of the world, anyone can have this belief but it tends to be held in those with the least privilege, those who have been taught by society that their opinions are worthless, or at the very least worth less than everyone else’s. The women of the world, the abused, mentally ill, gay, those who experience racism and discrimination against their religion are all less likely to take part in the constant discourse that defines humanity as the greatest animal on this planet. They stay silent out of fear, out of a belief they shouldn’t have opinions or out of the false belief that they really don’t care.
Why do I say the false belief that they don’t care? Can’t people be apathetic? Yes and no. Individuals can get to a place where they are completely disconnected with the world around them, or even just an individual issue but it isn’t the natural state of any human to experience this kind of apathy. Rather, it is a defense mechanism against the fact they believe they are powerless. It is less painful sometimes to enter a state of mind where we can tell ourselves that nothing matters to us and that we don’t have opinions or feelings on issues than acknowledging that we probably don’t have the power to change anything on our own. Apathy in any case stems from an inherent sense of worthlessness. We tell ourselves: “I can’t change things alone, so I can’t care about things. Sure, I could cause the change in the world I desire by tapping into human cooperation, but I don’t actually believe I have the power to get people to listen to me and therefore I’m simply not going to try.”
This is furthermore complicated by the fact that we as individuals don’t fall on the spectrum once and stay there. We are constantly changing where we fall based on where we are in our lives and even the individual issue. As a white woman, perhaps I am under-confidant in my ability to talk on racial issues while I am over confidant on my opinions on issues that confront women. (Personally, I think I’ve reached a pretty good middle ground on both of these issues, but I’m constantly trying to improve it.) This is where things start to get even more complicated, because some individuals do have more authority than others to speak on certain issues. Women have the ability to speak on what it is like to be a woman in this world, where as men do not have the ability to speak on that issue. However, men do have the ability to have opinions about what should be done in light of those experiences, but they can only form those opinions after listening extensively to the stories of many women. Ultimately, men have to approach sexism from a place of understanding they can never experience it in the same way as women, but also from a place where they do understand their experiences are relevant to the discussion. Instead of taking away the attention from women’s issues to focus on men’s issues, we must give each issue the focus it deserves. Do all issues deserve equal focus? No, of course not. When a fire alarm goes off, we don’t take the time to finish our TV show before leaving the building. Some things need more immediate attention than others, we can’t approach any issue from a place of equality, but we do have to make sure we aren’t making any one issue more or less important than it really is.
So how do you do this? How do you keep yourself in the middle, especially when you fall different places on the spectrum for every issue, and even your place on individual issues can change from day to day? How do you know if you are giving an issue too much attention or too little? How do you know what is most important for you to address right now, and what can wait? How do you know if you’ve listened to the other side enough to have a contradictory opinion? The answer: constant unrelenting self reflection and accountability. Looking at everything with a critical eye whenever possible. Sometimes it won’t be possible. There will be a few moments in your life where you are just too exhausted from it all to have an opinion, and you can and should give yourself time to retreat into the simple joys of life and allow yourself to recover, even if you have to suspend critical thinking for a few hour or perhaps even a day. But once you are back to a place where you can engage, you must continue to do so. Constantly asking questions of yourself about how much information you have, trying to find the flaws in your own arguments and beliefs and trying to appreciate the complex and ever-changing nature of social, economic, and political issues.
It sounds exhausting to hold oneself to this standard of constant self reflection. Looking at ourselves critically can be a difficult experience, especially considering it isn’t necessarily something we’re taught to do. As someone who is deeply interested in behavioral economics I would consider it nothing short of insanity to think of asking someone to do something that not in their best interests, and I agree with the sentiment that we shouldn’t engage in behavior that isn’t beneficial to us. The reality is the choices we make with the biggest payoff are usually the hardest to make, and the easiest choices are often the most detrimental in the long run. I would love to only eat the fattiest and most sugary foods. My eating experience would be a constant source of pleasure if I did only eat the most delicious food. However, my life would be terrible. I would become overweight, lose my energy and health. I would even run the risk of dying, or losing a limb to diseases like diabetes. I would also love to just lay in bed all day and only consume entertainment. A life of nothing but sleeping, watching TV and reading? Sign me up! Of course, I would never do this even if I had the opportunity. I would be so profoundly unhappy even a week into the experience I’d be urging to do something productive, to get out of bed and take a walk. The negatives of this kind of lifestyle far outweighs the benefits, even if it seems like the “easier” choice. This same principal applies to self criticism and self reflection. Sure, you can go through life never trying to grow or make a better world for yourself, but will that make you happy? Is that actually the easier path? When you see your daughter experience rape culture first hand and you know you’ve stayed silent about the issue, or haven’t even though to care, suddenly you become partially implicit in the most painful experiences of your life. When you reach old age and realize you’ve made no significant contribution to society, will you really be happier for taking the path of least resistance? If we take this path, we won’t be able to ignore the reality of our lacking, because not everyone in our lives will chose to be passive and we will be forced to bear witness to the rich lives they have built for themselves.
On the other end of the spectrum, perhaps you are overconfident in your beliefs and you don’t engage in enough self criticism of them. You fight for what you believe in without looking at it with a critical eye. The danger here is ultimately far greater than for the pacifist who wastes their entire life letting immorality flourish, because those who fight for their beliefs without examining them run the risk of fighting for something they don’t actually believe in. They voted for Hitler because they wanted a better economy and didn’t think it important to look into his moral character, they chose money over morality and where left with the blood of millions on their hands. Or perhaps they voted for the criminalization of marijuana not realizing that they were going to be responsible for putting their own sons in prison, learning far too late that all those “dangers” we were taught about don’t actually exist and instead we were just complacent in a scheme for political power. We raise our children with the ultimate strictness, and the minute they become independent we realize we’ve lost all chances of forming an actual connection with them and we have no one to blame but ourselves. Alternatively, we are far too easy on our child in an endeavor to be their best friend and we watch them slowly waste away, a victim of alcohol and other drug abuse, because we never took the time to be the parent they really needed.
We will never be perfect, and we will make mistakes. There is no way to avoid that. However if we chose not to look at ourselves critically and constantly strive to push ourselves towards the middle of that spectrum, we will always fail. Beliefs held without giving the other side of the story a chance are not beliefs, they are us perpetuating other peoples propaganda, whether it is our parents, our leaders or our friends. Apathy is a recipe for a unfulfilling life and a direct result of a complete lack of self worth, to consider it in anyway valuable or legitimate is to set ourselves up for failure.