It feels like we are bombarded with a new story, subject, or scandal every day — and on social media, our fully formed, perfectly penned opinions are demanded instantly. But what if we don’t have one?
We are living in the age of the ‘opinion’.
From Brexit and Covid passports to Dominic Cummings, Megan & Harry’s latest interview, Bennifer, Boris or Biden, it feels like there is a constant pressure for us to have a fully-formed opinion on everything — and it’s exhausting.
Exposed to controversy on a global scale like never before, we are presented with a new story, subject, or scandal on which to form an opinion every single day— and social media has given us all a platform through which to share it. But, whilst it’s wonderful that technology has given us the means by which to exercise our freedom of speech and share our ideas, it’s hard to escape the implicit sense of obligation for us to use it.
The nature of social media today demands that we forge our opinions immediately. The average duration of time that a reader will give to an online article is 15 seconds — hardly long enough to make it beyond the headline — before racing off to share their views on it. Having simply skimmed over a story, we push ourselves to form opinions that end up being somewhat impulsive, half-baked, and — in many cases — uninformed.
Acknowledging this issue, Twitter recently introduced a new ‘read before you retweet’ prompt: a notification that appears on the screen if a user tries to share an article that they haven’t clicked on. This, according to Twitter, is ‘designed to empower healthy conversation and informed public conversation’.
The pace, quantity and brevity of the news cycle today is impossible to keep up with; just as we’re beginning to digest one issue, the media is already feeding us the next. So it’s no surprise that, amongst all of the daily noise, hearing our own thoughts can be a challenge.
The internet doesn’t lend itself well to someone saying ‘I don’t know’. All of the social media channels are crowded with people professing to have the right answer (hashtags rarely finish with a question mark), and as a result, it’s hard to admit any fallibility or ignorance on a subject.
Opinions are becoming increasingly black-and-white, stripped of any shading and nuance. Sometimes in the heat of the debate, we fail to see both sides of an argument, to feel a degree of empathy for both parties, or to simply remain a spectator — instead we are expected to stand firmly in one camp or the other.
According to The Guardian, the rise of identity politics in the West has made people “more defensive, more punitive, more us-versus-them”. The Week defines ‘identity politics’ as ‘a subset of politics in which groups of people with particular shared race, religious, ethnic, social or cultural identity seek to promote their own specific interests or concerns’; but with many of our social groups forming around these mutual opinions, things have (inevitably) become a little tribal.
More than our actions, it seems our opinions are being taken as the measure of who we are. Once told to keep our opinions to ourselves, we are now encouraged to sing them loud-and-proud, in what can be a demonstrative and (dare I say it) performative affair. Where people got bold haircuts and wore statement clothing as a way of defining themselves, we now don our opinions like badges, as a way of showing we are ‘woke’, or of reaffirming our place within our social circles. But this is understandable — in a time of unification through shared opinions, it can feel incredibly alienating not to have one.
With the barrage of opinion-pushing that takes place online, it can also be difficult to untangle our own opinions from the jumble of other peoples’; we can lose sight of what we think, as opposed to what we have been told we should think.
Though we’re convinced that we have the freedom to forge our own opinions, there’s usually a ‘correct’ opinion that we’re expected to subscribe to, and one swift scroll through Instagram is all it takes to determine what that is. But standing strong on an opinion that goes against the grain is not easy, and the fear of deviating from the views of the people we identify with can prevent us from ever finding out what we actually believe.
At times, I find myself paralysed between the fear of not knowing what it is I want to say, and the fear of what will be assumed if I don’t say anything at all — for silence is often misconstrued as disengagement.
For example, my failure to post anything online around the #YesAllWomen movement should not be wrongly interpreted as a refusal to acknowledge misogyny, or a disregard for the welfare of women. Rather, I am absent online because I am taking the time to unpick my own experiences, to consider how misogyny has affected me, and to figure out how I want to address these points away from the heat of the social media spotlight.
When I haven’t yet been able to make sense of my own thoughts, I notice myself adopting the opinions of others as a form of protection, so that I can’t be accused of not caring. But I believe that we can care deeply about a cause, without always knowing precisely what the solution for it must be — we can’t have the answers for everything.
There are so many simultaneous conversations taking place in the public domain nowadays — too many, I find, to engage with all at once — and the echo-chamber effect of social media means we are all expected to be consuming and caring about the same things. So we can end up drowning in a cesspit of semi-digested thoughts, or feeling like a fraud when those thoughts are not our own.
Chatting to a friend of mine last week, she told me that in the days following Oprah ’s interview with Megan Markle and the ‘Kill The Bill’ protests, she felt completely overwhelmed — swamped with other people’s (often one-sided) depictions of arguments, and demands for her to contribute. Her feelings about these two events were not straightforward, they were muddled and conflicted, but she wasn’t able to voice that; to avoid animosity, she felt she had no choice but to meme the opinions of everyone around her.
But we don’t have to be vocal in order to participate. Commenting is not the sole form of engagement; there is real value in listening, observing and absorbing too. What’s more, if everyone’s speaking at the same time, no-one can be heard; silence is a valuable part of the collective conversation, and necessary in order for us to be able to process and reflect upon everything that’s going on.
The internet perpetuates the misconception that humans are polished, perfect beings, with polished, perfect thoughts, when in fact we are often inconsistent, incomplete and undecided. Saying ‘I don’t know’ in a society that demands opinions to be fast, unfaltering, and clear-cut can feel almost like a rebellion — something I encourage us all to try.
Neutrality and uncertainty aren’t always signs of weakness — there is power in saying ‘I don’t know’; it means you have the distance to be able to see both sides more clearly. And, in my opinion, to admit our fallibilities is to show strength; to stay silent is to allow others to speak; to see both sides to an argument is to have empathy; and to say ‘I don’t know’ is to give yourself the opportunity to find out.