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Why we shouldn't give in to "group-think" online

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Anna O'Neil - published on 09/21/17

Do not be afraid to have an opinion. Human approval is a dangerous idol.

There’s this Thomas Merton quote that kind of blew my mind. He says that part of seeking God is found in love, humility, peace, and everything you expect. But he adds something. To seek God, I must “put away … the whole burden of opinions that I have no obligation to carry.”

Since when is holding non-obligatory opinions a burden? I like my opinions. Personally, I have at least a nebulous opinion about everything from foreign policy to how my next door neighbors ought to raise their kids. I can’t think of a question you could ask me that I wouldn’t have some kind of response to. Apparently, this is not ideal.

Brene Brown talks about why we’re so free spouting unsupported opinions, in Braving the Wilderness. It’s rooted in fear. When I say (to pick a controversial topic that I know literally nothing about) “I believe GMO food isn’t dangerous,” without having done the slightest bit of research on the topic, I’m guilty of disregard for the truth, even if I’m not deliberately lying. The fear part comes in when I don’t choose to say “I have no idea,” to avoid looking unintelligent, uninformed, or unmotivated to do what’s right for my family.

Brown accuses herself of the same behavior. She says it gets worse than just posturing, too. “If I didn’t know enough about [the issue] to be insightful or even conversational, I would lean in to ideological debates based on what I guessed ‘my people’ think about it.” There’s a winning strategy, for sure. You pretty much guarantee that you come across intelligent, or at least, that you’ll have a group of people cheering you on. No chance of being humiliated when you already know your friends, at least, will back you up. This is how echo chambers get started. I can’t think of anything that’s less helpful, in the pursuit of truth. And truth’s other name is Christ. That’s why this matters.

There are certain opinions that we are obligated to hold — the ones that we actually believe in, after building up an authentic understanding of the issue. But opinions that come out of a desire to stay with our faction, with “our crowd,” do real damage to the world. We’re obligated to speak what we believe, but we have no right to hold an argument purely for the sake of our self-image, or the approval of our friends. Human approval is a dangerous idol.

In my own life, I have a pretty clear idea of the stuff I need to stop talking about. Politics, for one. If I were willing to do the work, look into party lines, policies, read sober discussions of both sides of the story, then sure, I have as much right to speak up as anyone. But since I’m not willing to spend that time, I don’t. It’s okay not to weigh in. I have way more important things to think about, and it’s my choice how to prioritize my time. But with that choice comes a responsibility not to engage in those discussions as though I have thought carefully about it. The truth is much too important to be treated so lightly.

Actually, it’s because truth is so important that makes saying “I don’t know” so hard. I’m not just talking about opinions about what’s the best color to paint your kid’s room. The most divisive issues are also the most important. Think childcare, vaccinations, education, political parties — knowing the truth has direct consequences, for your own life and for the trajectory of civilization. If I say I don’t know, it makes me look like I’m not taking it seriously. But that’s a misunderstanding that I’m going to have to live with, because the bottom line is, choosing to have an opinion before understanding the issue is a real burden, for all the same reasons that sin is a burden.

I’m not saying you can’t open your mouth unless you’re an expert. I just noticed that it’s becoming almost expected of us to be willing to speak up, regardless of whether we ought to. It creates an atmosphere that elevates pride and group-think over integrity and honesty, and it’s something to be wary of. The world needs more conversation, more curiosity, and more dialogue, and that isn’t going to happen if we always have to have something to say.

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