It is in our power to have no opinion about a thing, and not to be disturbed in our soul; for things themselves have no natural power to form our judgments. – Marcus Aurelius (Meditations 6.52)
Marcus Aurelius was a Roman emperor and philosopher whose musings on life have transcended centuries. I'm not sure who came up with this next one but I'm sure it'll live just as long...
Opinions are like assholes, everyone has one and sometimes they're shitty
When Jason and David announced changes to their company’s culture last month, Basecamp trended in minutes. The key change was that ‘no more societal and political discussions’ were permitted by employees on their work platforms. Since that announcement, roughly 30% of the company – one of tech's biggest sweethearts – has resigned.
Ironically, Basecamp’s announcement had me chasing my tail; I was annoyed at their lack of an opinion and formed my own almost immediately – I disagreed that this a good way to protect employees and do business – and thus began a thought chain that ends here, in this essay and this revelation: I don’t need to have an opinion about everything.
Opinions conveyed on the social internet tend to favour binary thinking: right or wrong, left or right, for or against. The social internet is optimised for this – even algorithms are just a set of opinions, of programmed biases – which is also why the social internet channels attention to a lot of things that don’t matter in greater context. Opinions presented in modern media lack nuance because consumers have been trained to pull social media's slot machine handle, get instant and frequently emotional and visceral reaction to retweet or ridicule, and pull again.
This is damaging for countless reasons but the weaponisation of opinion and people who have shot to stardom simply for having hot-takes is nothing new; there have been influencers and opinion leaders for as long as there has been civilisation. What is new is their ability to affect and polarise public discourse beyond what one would consider a reasonable level. Plenty of media space is given to people whose only qualification is that they simply hold vapid opinions: entire sections of newspapers, ITV's Loose Women... None of these people are experts, they're all influencers shooting from the hip. It is exactly this abundance of noise that is the problem with our current discourse.
To use an analogy, it is unhelpful to know that individual pixels of a picture may be red, blue, white, black, or green. These neat squares are shortcuts, useful for explaining what's happening within them but they alone cannot help us identify what photo the pixels belong to. Get too close to the individuals and they become a distraction to the wider frame. Singer and Brooking write about the same thing in Likewar – a chapter titled 'Inundation: Drown the web, run the world' is particularly eye-opening.
Charlie Brooker, long before Black Mirror fame, used to write a column in The Guardian. Just before hanging up that column in 2013, he wrote:
If a weatherman misreads the national mood and cheerfully sieg-heils on BBC Breakfast at 8.45am, there'll be 86 outraged columns, 95 despairing blogs, half a million wry tweets and a rib-tickling pass-the-parcel Photoshop meme about it circulating by lunchtime. It happens every day. Every day, a billion instantly conjured words on any contemporaneous subject you can think of. Events and noise, events and noise; everything was starting to resemble nothing but events and noise.
'I don’t need to have an opinion about everything' as policy
I'm never a fan of policies like the one Basecamp attempted to implement but sometimes policies are needed because it puts in plain-text exactly what is and what is not permissible.
I am urging a slow-down – a circuit-break in the flow of information > thought > speech – because, also in the words of Brooker, I've 'started to view myself as yet another factory mindlessly pumping carbon dioxide into a toxic sky'. Perhaps this isn’t a groundbreaking discovery for you but as I’ve already written about, I've seen friends die on mountains of opinion because having said something publicly they’re then too afraid to change their minds.
None of what I have written here should be taken as a suggestion that people are not entitled to opinions, that this means I am not opinionated, or that it means I won't continue to share strongly held and supported opinions.
Instead, my new personal policy is that I'll only share my opinion when relevant to the thing I'm discussing and where those opinions are backed up by non-opinions: fact. No 3am 'just 'coz' hot-takes that are designed to provoke rather than inform and no opinion shared without a credible source to explain or educate about it.
I'm doing this for all of our benefit; mine, because as character Erica Albright states in 2010 movie The Social Network, 'the internet's not written in pencil, it's written in ink' and yours, because in minimising the noise pollution of the flock, we might just hear the beauty of a single tweet.