About a year ago, that ginger, long-haired, eye-shadow-wearing comedian-musician, Tim Minchin, cropped up on my Facebook feed. It had been a while since I had stumbled across his parody songs on YouTube (which I would highly recommend).
On this occasion, he was wearing a serious pointy hat, addressing a hall full of graduates. The video’s caption read “9 Life Lessons”. I was intrigued.
Only months earlier, I sat in a similar graduation hall, unfortunately listening to a far less entertaining speaker. As a recent graduate, I was all ears open to any life advice I could get, whatever the source.
The full speech (linked below) is well worth a listen for its wit and eloquence alone, but I wanted to share my thoughts on one throwaway phrase he uses, so very easy to miss, that has stayed with me ever since.
“In my opinion until I change it”
I have always been an opinionated person. At school and university, I thought it was a good thing to have lots of opinions. The more topics I could weigh in on in a conversation, the better. I assumed it was a display of intelligence.
To be guilty of using the liberal arts cliché that David Foster Wallace so brilliantly deconstructs in his own famous “This Is Water” commencement speech, my education taught me how to think more critically, which is to say:
Instead of picking a black or white ready-made opinion, you carefully select a grey line of argument, towing it with a painstaking attention to detail.
The catchphrase of one particular teacher springs to mind: nuance. Mount an argument with as many qualifying distinctions as possible and you exhaust the counter-arguments. Throughout my degree, this served me well.
To this day, I am far better with the written word than in verbal combat precisely because of this careful manipulation. The key is to argue loudly about small details.
What The Hell Is Water?
The problem is, the more sophisticated and well-formed an opinion, the greater risk we run of becoming complacent and arrogant with it. The more you consolidate an argument, the more trapped inside it you become.
With all the best intentions in the world, it’s easy to pick up the facts that fit and, subconsciously or otherwise, overlook the rest. Like the two young fish who wonder “what the hell is water?” in Wallace’s didactic parable, you become delusional.
Of course, being argumentative or opinionated is not an inherently bad thing.
But most of us are highly malleable, shaped and influenced by the last opinion we hear, rehearsing other people’s arguments as if they are our own. We substitute critical thinking, which is difficult, requiring awareness and effort, for slogans and ideologies. Cultural identities become surrogates for individuality.
In today’s world, this intellectual laziness and ignorance is more dangerous than ever. We are bombarded with uneducated and bigoted opinions in the media from sources blindly accepted as credible authorities. This is to say nothing about the rise of ‘fake news’ as a genre pumped up by social media.
When I was back writing essays, the phrase ‘in my opinion’ was frowned upon. It was often seen to undermine whatever interpretation you were trying to pedal as the ‘right one’. We were told to refrain from using the first-person at all costs, as if trying to disguise our heavy-handed authorship.
The idea of challenging convention even further and writing ‘in my opinion until I change it’ in an essay seems funny to me now, and at the same time rather appropriate (although I wouldn’t recommend it).
If the true lesson of a liberal arts degree is to make us aware of our own opinions, and the forces that create them, I can think of no more pertinent preposition.
If I may add a call to action to Tim Minchin’s brilliant speech:
Challenge certainty, embrace doubt and wear mindful ignorance with humility.
If you are a recent graduate, you might also like Life After Graduation – A Five Year Window which includes another great (short) video, well worth watching.