Against the Court of Public Opinion

by Alexis Mora Angulo on Unsplash

I love reading and talking about politics, culture, and religion with my peers. It’s easily one of my favorite pastimes.

Over the past 5 year or so, however, we have seen a strange air settle over the country and broader society. Most of the things listed above feel too sensitive to talk about. That doesn’t mean people have stopped having opinions or questions about them, of course, it’s just that voicing them has become too uncomfortable, taboo, or even dangerous. In large part, because the court of public opinion has deemed certain ideas/questions as unacceptable, illegitimate. See James Damore.

So either we suppress them or we modify them to fit within consensus opinion. Nonetheless, our desire to ask true questions, share and test unpopular ideas, and converse with each other about important things, remains. And if they don’t at some point find expression, they drive us crazy. Often bordering on the point of explosion — not a healthy way to live. How then, do we regain a culture that is not afraid of conversation?

A political philosophy class in my third year of university illustrated the above dynamic to me clearly. During the second half of the course we focused on race in the 21st century in the U.S. After finishing one of the assigned books, the professor set aside time for a class discussion. It wasn’t a typical discussion like I was used to, however. The professor said he wanted to us to “take down our masks” and share our thoughts and questions without worry or fear of being judged. To encourage this, he had us write down our questions and observations on notecards. The notecards were distributed randomly around the room, disassociating each contribution from its author.

While I believe the professor had good intentions, the exercise struck me as ironic. In trying to remove our masks, he had allowed everyone to hide behind a mask of anonymity. Sure, by making our opinions anonymous, the professor allowed us to more freely “express” our thoughts without risk of personally offending others. And yet, he was missing the point: in having us “wear masks”, he was already conceding that open, honest conversation among us was impossible.

Real conversation can only happen between real people, and disassociating an idea from the person makes true understanding and encountering each other impossible. I don’t want to read an idea out loud from a notecard and say in my head “I agree,” so as to avoid offending someone. I want to say, “I, David Stokman, think — — “ and be respected regardless of whether you agree with me or not.

What allows us to overcome fear and express our thoughts freely? For me, I have noticed that two things must be held in tension: my disagreement with someone’s opinion (I may even think it stupid or wrong) and the fact that nobody can be reduced to the views they hold. We are more than the mere sum of our opinions.

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