Sometimes I say things that are utterly outlandish, things that I am not quick enough to catch before they slip out of my mouth. When that happens, I giggle, make phrases into questions, add disclaimers like, “But I don’t know anything about this,” and “I’m just guessing.”
I used to think that my refusal to be sure of anything I said was a sign of thoughtfulness, even of intelligence. My longtime motto has been “remember to be first confused and then disgusted.” I’ve existed in a state of confusion for years now, shying away from proclaiming myself as pro-something and anti-something else. I pride myself on my indecision: other, more foolish people have opinions about serious topics; it’s we who have refrained from making up our minds who are truly highly evolved.
This past weekend, I attended the PossePlus Retreat, hosted by the Posse Foundation at the Incarnation Conference Center in Iverton, Conn. The title of the conference was “Power, Authority, Crime & Punishment.” While participating in the activities, many of which required us to think about our own stances on moral and social issues, I realized that I honestly had no idea what I thought about practically anything. It turns out that refusing to have a definitive opinion on anything for a couple of years results in not having any definitive opinions. The person who’s talked to me the most recently usually persuades me, and I find myself nodding along with two radically different speakers, eager to soak up the knowledge and let people who are obviously more knowledgeable tell me what to think.
It’s all well and good to be a sponge. But I think I’ve spiraled out of control: I’ve become a totally permeable membrane. Other people’s ideas are better than mine, I often think; better to simply quote them and express uncertainty about what I believe. But that’s bullshit. It’s fear. It’s totally fear. If I have my own opinion, I join a group of other people who share that opinion. And when that happens, I become a conformist.
In eleventh grade English, my teacher coached us girls to make firm statements, not “up talking” at the end of our sentences, but maintaining a decidedly straight tonal line. We practiced tugging down the ends of our sentences, making questions into claims. At the time, I fretted that always sounding sure was a terrible idea. After all, who is really sure of anything? The fear of being wrong was paralyzing, just as the fear of being lumped into a group is paralyzing. But what we say isn’t printed in indelible ink. We can edit our thoughts, go back and revise as needed. So I’m going to start having opinions again. If you want to join me, let’s follow these steps together.
1. Go with your gut.
If something seems wrong to you, then say so, even if everybody else think it’s right. Don’t proclaim that you’re right and the others are wrong, but try to articulate why you believe what you do. Another option if you’re really scared of being attacked by those you oppose (this is a risk that’s realer than it might seem), is to keep your opinion to yourself but still admit, even if it’s just in your own brain, that you think something. Write it down so you don’t forget it. Date the entry.
2. Do your research.
Be relentless. Scour the Internet and books for smart people’s opinions and also facts. It helps to look not only for information that backs up your gut reaction—that’s called “confirmation bias”—but also for information that might support somebody else’s point of view.
3. Change your opinion.
This is the fun part. Everyone loves someone who’s able to admit her mistakes, so announce in front of a large group of people that even though you once thought one thing, now you realize the error of your ways. You will look highly evolved in no time at all.
4. Express your opinion.
Practice telling people what you think. Start with your close friends and family, people who know you well. Then tell acquaintances. Don’t be arrogant. Talk to experts: professors, professionals. Listen to responses and try to answer slowly. If somebody smarter than you says something that doesn’t quite make sense, ask for clarification. Once you have an idea of what they’re saying, evaluate it. If you disagree, don’t be coerced into agreeing; even smart people sometimes have dumb opinions.
5. Change your opinion.
Go back to the drawing board. Let yourself be convinced by the people you talk to, but only if they’re saying something that makes sense (as opposed to something that sounds smart, or like something you should probably believe is right). Write down your new opinion. Date it.
6. Change your opinion again.
Keep changing your opinion until you die, but have one every day. Not all opinions have to be about important things. Have opinions about nut butters and cell phones and global warming. If you refrain from having an opinion, be intentional about it. Remember that neutrality is an opinion, but apathy is not. Don’t be apathetic. Apathy kills. So does smoking cigarettes—but that’s just my opinion.
Davis is a member of the class of 2017.