Opinion: Are we becoming a nation of followers?
February 17, 2016
Oops, I did it again. I responded to a political post on Facebook. Why do I do that? It never ends well.
Really, I know why I am tempted to respond. It is because I am a historian, specifically of American history. Sometimes I see an argument that is not supported by historical evidence, and I get frustrated. I respond by pointing out some aspect of history that debunks the main arguments of said post, usually in defense of some group of marginalized peoples who are getting negatively stereotyped (I'm a sucker for that).
It is hard being a historian, because with every opinion that surfaces, I turn to history for evidence and answers — when many people do not. In this particular case, the back and forth posts took a different turn, away from the original post, and into a discussion about opinions.
This debate about opinions disturbed me more than the political arguments that started it. My friend kept making the point that I have my opinion and he has his. How dare I try to change his opinions, that his opinions were rooted in his own experiences and I didn't know anything about those.
“Once we’ve lost that critical thinking piece and we just rely on our emotions to back up our opinions, we become a nation of followers, willing to believe in almost any nonsense that comes our way, and this is dangerous, very dangerous.”
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At any rate, straight up opinions are great when perhaps you are discussing something minor like, "how was the skiing today?" We all have that friend that would respond positively, no matter what the conditions were, because frankly, to them, any day on the mountain is a good day.
We consider the source, evaluate it, and figure out if that is an opinion we want to put stock in. We are essentially doing the work of a historian, critically thinking about where the opinions are coming from and then considering all the evidence; what were the temperatures, what time of day was it, who was he with, where did he ski?
Once we have the whole story (the history) we can formulate our own opinions about the topic and move on. It is a training of the brain to listen to a claim, gather all the evidence, consider the source, and construct logical a reasoning for our inquiry.
It is also the work of a critical thinker. Once we've lost that critical thinking piece and we just rely on our emotions to back up our opinions, we become a nation of followers, willing to believe in almost any nonsense that comes our way, and this is dangerous, very dangerous.
Today, more than any other time in our recent history, we live in a nation where anyone can say anything they want, they can "speak their mind," and they are "entitled to their opinion."
No, no they aren't. You have to be able to back up your political, economic, or social opinions with evidence. You have to be willing to debate that evidence in a civilized manner, without quickly changing the subject or resorting to name-calling.
Thomas Jefferson made it clear that our democracy would only work if citizens were informed — not opinionated, but informed. There is a big difference between the two and we are seriously losing sight of those differences.
I will not shy away from political debate, as it is the cornerstone of our democracy, but what I find more of these days is that no one wants to debate. They want to say things like, "let's agree to disagree," "you have your opinions, and I have mine," or "it is what it is." While those are nice and polite ways to end any conversation, it does not serve our democracy well.
What if instead, we all acted like we just exited a social studies class and said, "let's talk about your claim, evidence and reasoning?"
Indeed, that would take time and patience — two things that no one has in the virtual world.
Whitney Foehl is a Truckee resident.