The Sin of Opinion
Have you ever been part of a social media thread like this?
Anyone seen the latest Star Wars?
Nah. But I hear it stinks.
That’s what they’re saying.
I’ve seen the trailer. Terrible.
Whole series jumped the shark long ago.
Haha yes. Three words. Jar. Jar. Binks.
Haven’t and won’t. It will be even more cringeworthy than the last.
Whose genius idea was it to give the movie to the director of ‘Little Miss Sunshine’?
I don’t understand how anyone in good conscience can even go to a Star Wars movie anymore. The way the Ewoks were exploited in the making of VI was disgusting. And no-one has ever apologised. And the racist way in which Darth Vader is dressed in ‘black’ is just one … (read more)
I can’t even. #dontseeit
Since they sold out to Disney, it’s been sell out all the way down.
Yeah, they are no longer interested in the story arc. It’s only about one thing—profits. #dontseeit
Hey does anyone think we should wait until we see it?
You are disgusting.
Social media parodies are not hard to write. We’ve seen this kind of conversation play itself out multiple times, over multiple subjects, on facebook or twitter or wherever.
In fact, we could change the subject of the conversation to almost anything and the level of analysis and passion would be approximately the same.
For example, the news stories that we discuss are as carefully manufactured as any Star Wars movie, and we debate them with about as much real knowledge and insight. It typically starts with a compressed, constructed narrative being presented to us in some form (as a news item or video clip), like this:
X was promised to happen by the government,
But (says earnest reporter) some people say it’s not working, or has disadvantaged them;
Queue Jim the Battler with tragic story to tell;
Cut to reporter with ten seconds of selective factoids;
Cut to two-sentence grab from government spokesman looking awkward, saying that everything is on track;
Back to reporter saying, “But try telling that to Jim the Battler”;
Solemn-looking news anchor sums it up with rueful comment.
The moral of the story, and what we’re supposed to think, is clear enough: the government is incompetent (as usual) and/or doesn’t care about the battlers (as usual).
All this is as stylised and crafted as any fiction. It may or may not represent the truth of the situation—we have so little to go on that it’s impossible to tell. What exactly did the government promise and in what context? Does Jim the Battler represent a broad trend or an anomaly? Are there other complexities that help explain both the plight of Jim and the broader situation? What alternative forms of action were available for the government? Is this the best that could be retrieved from difficult circumstances?
None of this can be conveyed in a short news story, nor is that the intention. What we get instead is a brief impressionistic narrative, usually based around the available footage, and presented to us as entertainment.
And then we share it on social media and opinionate profusely about it, making value judgements, impugning motives, and generally joking and quipping and sniding with a kind of cool, gestural indignation.
Most online discussion of contemporary issues is like this—whether it’s about George Floyd, the European Super League, climate change, the vaccine roll-out, or the latest political scandal. None of us knows much of anything; but this doesn’t stop us responding with our opinion.
And frequently that response is an aesthetic judgement (of what we favour or like), or a tribal reflex (based on what other people like me believe and think). Only in the rarest of instances do we penetrate to a level of knowledge or insight that might lead to real understanding or responsible action.
All of which is to say that while this kind of opinionating passes the time divertingly, and may even raise our cache among friends, it has about as much connection with reality as a bunch of Star Wars fans discussing a movie they haven’t seen.
But is this really such a problem, you might ask?
What’s wrong with friends occasionally shooting the breeze about trivia?
Well, perhaps not much, if it is indeed ‘trivia’ (my cat’s diarrhoea) and it is ‘occasional’ (as opposed to the 2 ¼ hours that the average user now spends on social media channels every day).
But social media discussion of current issues goes well beyond trivial and occasional. It enables and supercharges a problem that we might call the sin of opinion.
Loving real people is hard. To do it well, we have to confront the reality of the fallen, complicated person standing before us, to prayerfully ponder what faith and love and wisdom require of us in the actual circumstances they are experiencing, and then to take the costly step of doing something, saying something, sharing something.
This kind of gospel wisdom asks a lot of me. It draws me out of myself. It demands my time and attention. It calls on me to see the problems of the world through the lens of the gospel rather than the lens of the news. It requires me to trust the knowledge of the world that God gives me, and to love others and speak the truth to them on that basis.
It goes against every sinful instinct I’ve got.
Much easier to say, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled” than to take responsibility to provide peace and warmth and filling for the suffering person before me (Jas 2:16).
Much easier to exhaust my moral energies on doomscrolling through endless posts and articles and youtube clips, pausing only to make ill-informed judgements about the confected narratives that are presented to me there.
All of it much easier than turning to the task at hand—which is to engage in the prayerful, costly action of being Christ’s ambassador in the real world I live in.
Feeling yourself distracted and exhausted by the opinion-machine that has been constructed by big tech for your diversion (and their profit)? Take a break. Use the time to think about something worthwhile and in depth, or to do something loving for a real person.
And as you sign off from your platform of choice, post Proverbs 18:2 into your feed:
“A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion”.
Today’s blast of opinion on the subject of opinion was stimulated in large part by a passage from Oliver O’Donovan’s Finding and Seeking (pp. 84-88), in which he speaks about the ways in which we fail to engage with the created world in wisdom. He speaks of the folly of inconsiderateness (where we don’t think or interrogate reality, but only watch, feel and react) and the folly of opinion (where we replace reflection and action with an anxious social participation in shallow, reactive opinion-sharing). I’ve concentrated above on ‘opinion’, but social media is an equally good platform for fostering ‘inconsiderateness’—a vacuous, thoughtless trawling through multiple images and clips, calling forth likes, emojis and brief quips, but never leading us to learn or understand anything.
Here’s a good OO’D quote about ‘the folly of opinion’:
Led by the Pied Pipers of the media we plunge into the caverns of imagination, framing our views on how the world may be put to rights and never giving thought to the fact that the world we are shown is a carefully constructed representation which demands interrogation … Sharpening our arrows of opinion and firing them off at actors they will never reach, pronouncing judgments that involve us in no actual responsibility, we go through the motions of playing a part in the great communicative drama and so work off surplus active impulses before turning to the tasks that actually lie before us. (p. 87)
There are other follies that are frequently at work in the online discussions we have about contemporary events or issues. I mention them here in passing, but they are probably worth a discussion of their own:
the folly of confirmation bias—selecting and arranging the facts before me in such a way as to confirm what I already know to be true;
the folly of monocausality—assuming that there is one, and only one, factor that explains a certain phenomenon (usually an -ism like racism or sexism or socialism or capitalism or whatever ideology we happen to be possessed by);
the folly of hasty generalization—taking one often symbolic incident and extrapolating it to a general conclusion—so, on one side, “a cold snap; see I told you global warming was rubbish”; or on the other, “a bushfire; see I told you that climate catastrophe is upon us”.
No doubt there are others.
This is a partner-only email, although I will open the web-article version to everyone tomorrow (so that you can share it with people if you’d like to).
And today’s image, a self-portrait …