You Don’t Always Need to Have An Opinion & There Is No Harm In Changing Your Mind

What sometimes makes it hard for me to write or speak is a lack of confidence in my understanding of the topic at hand. I feel that if I am not aware and have no deepened understanding of every single aspect involved, I have no right to an opinion, let alone to put one into words. I sometimes ignore these inhibitions, which is the only reason I have ever uttered any statement at all: It is painfully clear to me that I know very little and practically none of what I know is for sure. As expected, academia has only made this worse. The fact is that if everyone lived by the golden standard of only speaking or writing when they are truly an expert — I have hardly ever heard anyone I believe to be an expert call themselves this -, we would live in a quiet world.

To find a happy medium between being a silent contemplator and a shouting fool (I generally try to lean towards the first) I live by several guidelines. These are standards I hold myself to. I have deep respect for those who are always right and firm, who have never had to own up to an error in judgement, but I am not one of them.

It is fully okay — more than that: it is honest, human and respectable — to not always have an opinion. We have access to huge amounts of information, it is impossible to absorb and process it all. There is no pride in simply regurgitating the thoughts of others without critically assessing them. The relentless pressure to always be informed and able to verbalise a thought on everything that goes on is dangerous and if we succumb to it, this will eventually lead to the death of critical thought.

My second rule of thumb is of an ambiguous character. Try to remain unbiased when familiarising yourself with a topic; usually after having been steered in one direction by several convincing authors one starts to adopt their point of view. Remain silent however until you feel you know enough. And therein lies the problem: What quantifies enough? At least hearing a large portion of the facts (problematic, since one can never know “how many” facts there are to know and a “large” portion of an unknown quantity cannot be identified, but we have to make do) and multiple opposing — well formulated and constructed — opinions. Don’t simply accept, question. Check sources mentioned in footnotes. Be quiet. Listen. Read. Question. Understand.

Even though this is counterintuitive — we are proud creatures after all -, it is imperative to be able to admit when you have been wrong or have changed your mind. By doing so you would be following in the footsteps of many great thinkers. How are we supposed to be able to grow if we are rigid? How can we move forward if we are immovable?

Always be kind, especially when you disagree. I get the impression that an unkind response to a well-construed argument often either stems from fear that a shaky foundation will be uncovered or from a simple misunderstanding of what a discussion is supposed to be. Never revert to shady rhetorics, such as personal attack. Listen. Question. Understand. Argue. And repeat.

When you are sure of what you stand for, when you believe wholeheartedly that what you know to be right is not being heard, when you are certain that it is critical that you’re listened to: Then don’t be afraid to shout.

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