Opinions are like social media accounts: approximately 2.7 billion people have one. I’ve no problem with people having an opinion of course. Quite the reverse: a nation without opinions is one without thoughts, ideas or morals. But over the last decade something has changed. We’ve always had opinions but now we feel compelled to share them with the world. And that is a problem.
A few years ago, I had opinions about everything. I had strong views on Peter Mandelson and BSE and Sierra Leone and 7/7 and the price of bus fares and Uri Geller’s friendship with Michael Jackson. But none of these opinions were good enough to share in public, much less put down in writing and publish to potentially everyone on the planet. I was perfectly happy with that, too.
Now however, almost every story provokes in me a visceral urge to share my views about it. Last week alone I opined on: Brexit (of course), political difficulties, tech regulation, cyber-security, drug decriminalisation in Portugal, inter-generational attitudes, radical environmentalism, identity politics, ‘white privilege’, Nigel Farage, the 'People’s Vote', Brazil, Communism, and unionising gig economy workers. If I’m honest, I know very little about most of these subjects. Yet whenever I see a news report, an urgent need rises up: what shall I say about this? I have a feeling about it – which must be shared with the world! (And ideally in emotionally charged language, since that will receive more interactions).
Why do we do this? The sheer existence of public platforms which literally ask ‘what’s happening?’ (Twitter) and ‘what’s on your mind?’ (Facebook) means silence is no longer the norm, but a choice. Because there is now a way to share your opinions easily with the world, and if you don’t, then it kind-of-implies you don’t know or care about what’s going on. And who wants to look ignorant or indifferent?
I feel this draw most acutely following a disaster or a terrorist attack. If I don’t denounce or condone, will people think it’s because I don’t care? Perhaps this is especially true today because politics is so heated. For a long time Taylor Swift did not share her views about politics with the world, in the way that most musicians for decades didn’t. And yet the pressure became too great: is she tacitly supporting the status quo? Why isn’t she denouncing X? Speaking up for Y, or praising Z? In the end, she cracked – and said she was supporting a Democrat in the mid-terms (much to the disappointment of some Trump supporters who’d somehow got the idea she was secretly an alt-righter). I fondly remember the days when I had no desire to know the political views of my TV heroes, and they felt no impulsion to share them. Did Harry Enfield support the Maastricht Treaty? Who knew? Who cared?
On an individual level, this isn’t a big problem. But when you scale this dynamic to all of us, you introduce a quite poisonous atmosphere. It used to be an insult to say someone was ‘opinionated’. They were loud, brash, dogmatic, annoying. Now we are becoming a nation of pub-bores, blurting out strongly held views all over the internet on things we know little about.
Several books have been written about the pros and cons – mostly pros in my view – of the democratisation of media. But there’s a downside I’d never really considered: it’s draining when every single government policy, opposition critique, every new idea, every mooted proposal or comment is accompanied by a cacophony of pseudonymous loud opinions saying it’s dreadful, immoral, hypocritical, unworkable (all amplified because journalists like opposition either for sales or balance). The spirit is worn away when everything is contested. Decisions that probably command either widespread public support or widespread indifference, start to appear highly divisive. Boring statements are transformed into something offensive, inflammatory, or controversial. (Note how many online stories are about celebrities or companies causing ‘outrage’ or apologising for causing ‘outrage’.)
Does anyone think the Brexit negotiations have been made easier by our frenetic 60/24/7 side commentary? Every Brexit-related announcement is swiftly followed by a sub-story: However, the former Brexit Secretary tweeted… Lord Adonis hit back, promising… Betrayal! A national humiliation! This is not scrutiny – scrutiny takes time. It’s just insta-opinion. Constructive ambiguity - necessary for any negotiation - is harder. Experienced lawyers took a few days to read and digest the Brexit deal negotiated by the government. Our incredible elected representatives shared certainties about it within a couple of hours.
We talk constantly about how divided we are. But I think this is partly a mirage. I’ve conducted a little experiment the last few days. Some days I wake up and diet on the morning’s Twitter outrage. Some days I ignore it all. The nation feels far more divided on my Twitter mornings. I like hearing different opinions, but sometimes it’s better to keep your own counsel. Now, if I can just start following my own advice...