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Spilling Out Our Lives
The case for having fewer opinions.
I’m not sure I have the energy to sustain an argument over the course of an entire essay, so perhaps it’s best for me not to try. It’s also a difficult burden to carry, to always have opinions on whatever happens to be happening at any given moment. There’s also a question of intensity. To express a public preference requires effort, and that effort means that you have to want it. So the opinions that are publicly expressed, say on Twitter, are self-selecting. They are the ones that meet some basic minimal threshold of effort.
Most of our effortless opinions, on the other hand, are lost to history. This is why I almost never write about climate. I have opinions about climate, and they’re admittedly controversial, but I have no real reason to tell you about them. I simply don’t care enough, and that’s probably for the best. Is it wicked not to care? No, I don’t think it is.
I suppose that if I really had to, I could come up with an opinion on pretty much anything, but I’m not sure that’s any way to live. People who run for office actually need to “create” opinions out of thin air. If blessed with enough resources, they can hire staff to come up with opinions and then review and approve those opinions by consulting their gut. It’s really a question, in the end, of how elected officials wish to prioritize their limited attention.
You could always tell, for instance, that John McCain’s heart was in certain things but not in others. He needed to adopt weird further-right positions to win in Arizona, particularly in his latter years, but it always seemed like he was doing this as a means to a greater end. He made the calculation that to have an impact on the things he really cared about, he’d have to also care (or appear to care) about the things he didn’t. What McCain really cared about was the U.S. military budget, democracy promotion, “hawkish” demonstrations of American power, the elevation of moral considerations in the exercise of that power, and the maintenance of American global hegemony. Guns, gay marriage, and deficit spending were secondary.
In short, this is why I’m not planning to run for office. But there’s another way to “develop” opinions. That’s by thinking deductively; in other words, to think through your general, first principles and then use those as a scaffolding to reach more specific conclusions. This is one reason I feel more strongly than ever about the Wisdom of Crowds “model.” Our goal is not to persuade you or to “win” arguments. Persuasion, like love or happiness, is a byproduct of other pursuits. It cannot be forced.
As I’ve gotten older, and as I look upon “the youth” with an uneasy mix of dismay and panic, it seems to me that their positions are held intensely but shallowly—they seem strong but have no roots in anything real. I feel like the model has been reversed: people, increasingly, adopt positions on specific culture or identity-related topics and then extend outward to more general, first premises. They decide what the right positions are on a particular issue and then they adopt whatever worldview accommodates those good or right positions most effectively with as little friction as possible. If you’re in an urban, elite environment, you don’t even really have to decide what positions to take. Deciding suggests a conscious process of careful consideration among competing options. But the “right” opinions often arrive fully-formed, almost as if they are pre-political. They are in the air you breathe and it might not even occur to you that there are alternatives to be considered.
Which is to return to where we began. You can have a strong opinion about not having a strong opinion. You can choose to not allow yourself to be dragged into believing in something you have no real reason to believe in. It helps to think back to what your first premises are, or to figure out what they are if you don’t yet know. I wish I did this more, but I do (sometimes) come under pressure to say something about the climate. The fact of the matter is that I don’t care about the climate, or at least I don’t care enough about it.
Some of you will know that my favorite novel is James Salter’s Light Years, and I often think back to a particular passage. The passage, like the book itself, is really one long reflection on the choices we make, creating long paths of regret, and that the paths that we take mean that we cannot take other paths. Godlike, the omniscient narrator reasons:
For whatever we do, even whatever we do not do prevents us from doing the opposite. Acts demolish their alternatives, that is the paradox. So that life is a matter of choices, each one final and of little consequence, like dropping stones into the sea.
In writing this Monday Note, I went back to the source. It’s been a while since I’ve read it and I couldn’t quite remember the full context. It’s beautiful and vaguely sad in a way that much of Salter’s writing is. In the next sentence, the narrator loses his omniscience. The dreamlike reflections become channeled instead through the more specific and limited considerations of the protagonist, a middle-aged father and husband named Viri:
We had children, he thought; we can never be childless. We were moderate, we will never know what it is to spill out our lives…
I hope I’m never compelled to spill out my own life, either.