August 28, 2016

GROSKAUFMANIS | On Not Having an Opinion

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At times, it feels like we as people are the product of hundreds of intersecting opinions, and that these are the building blocks that construct our character, or, at the very least, our political identities.

I have plenty of opinions — probably too many. Right now, off the top of my head, I can think of about six different things that I find to be kind of prickly, that I want to talk about, write about or start conversations about. Like the fact that, on my first day of work this summer, on the same Metro line I took into D.C. every day, a woman was raped at 10 a.m. in broad daylight, and the media gave it less attention than the construction work being done on that transit system. Or the fact that Merrick Garland still hasn’t gotten a confirmation hearing. Or the existence of student debt as a symbol of our nation’s failure to create an accessible system of higher education. Or waning collective interest in the Flint water crisis. And then, of course, there’s Donald Trump. But I’m not going to write about any of this right now. For my first column, the winning opinion here is none. I think in the media frenzy of crazy stories, public figures and controversies, we’ve stepped off the foundation of public discourse, and have forgotten the essential importance of, sometimes, beginning with no opinion at all.

Before I came to Cornell, lacking an opinion made me feel lazy and thoughtless, so I started to view it as essential to take a stance on things that caught popular attention. Guns? Dangerous. Voting? Civic duty. Congress? Ineffective. And while I still hold diluted versions of these convictions, I’m kind of concerned by how little knowledge originally went into discovering them, and how impulsively they were subscribed to. I’ve always had sound bites that I felt confident repeating when these subjects came up, and I didn’t feel shy or divisive when I spoke my mind. Rather, I felt informed, like having a confident opinion gave me some kind of intellectual ethos, grounding me in a larger conversation. Looking back, however, regurgitated reels of popular opinions are often acts of laziness in themselves, and occasional silence is where we could all truly show some discipline.

Cornell was the one of the first places I ever really “changed my mind” on anything fundamental, and it all happened while scrolling through The Sun. Not in an article, but in the deep depths of the comments section, on my own piece.

The comments were a stew of what felt like personal attacks and essay-form responses, and while I shrugged off some of the responses in an “agree to disagree” mentality, and stopped reading them altogether after a while, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that some of what people said in opposition to my article was right — or, at the very least, interesting. It was a bit embarrassing to see my points disputed, but it was also really important. All I could really think was, “I hadn’t considered that.” Of course, my general stance didn’t do a 180, but I started allowing myself to bend in some places I had never been willing to bend, and have since held onto a bit of that adopted perspective.

In life, and particularly in college, conversation is currency, and strong opinions translate into valuable commodities. A “good argument” or a strong point tends to garner more respect than a timid reminder of facts, and we reward people — with terms like “genuine” and “consistent” — when they take a stance and stick with it. This kind of rigidity is how a lot of really important conversations are started, but ideological flexibility (or just tolerance) can also be credited with the same outcome.

This past summer was a long one, in terms of politics and tragedy. Our nation began (and developed) many important conversations, but it wasn’t easy, and we aren’t done. With Brock Turner bringing the criminal justice system into question on behalf of the extremely privileged, and the Black Lives Matter movement bringing the same system into question on behalf of the disproportionately targeted, even the most apolitical people couldn’t help but chime in on these national conversations. Early in the summer, I asked a friend what she thought and she just said, “I don’t know.” Granted, six hours later she texted me paragraphs on her outrage, but in the meantime she was figuring out where she stood, apart from Facebook posts and clickbait articles. You don’t see that very much anymore.

With the Internet we’ve developed this insatiable hunger for drama and information, and with that, I would argue our attention span has shortened, making us yearn for the instant gratification of receiving a black-or-white answer. And while clean-cut opinions do exist and can be of great quality, they risk being sloppy if constructed on impulse. The best opinions come from neutral states, when one makes a labored effort to gather facts, and most importantly, to listen.

Jacqueline Groskaufmanis is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at jgroskaufmanis@cornellsun.com. The Dissent appears alternate Mondays this semester.

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