Low Regard Opinions
The Lack of Separation Between Self and Ideas is at the Root of Our Lack of Sense-Making Capabilities
"Your best opinions are those you hold in low regard."
This line from 'The Little Book of Thinking Big' by Richard Newton encapsulates a way of framing ideas, theories, and beliefs, in a way that renders them open to healthy skepticism, scrutiny, and - dare I say it - perhaps even changing ones mind.
Holding an opinion in low regard does not mean the issue itself is one of low regard. On the contrary, the issue may be a weighty tome of substantial complexity, requiring significant contemplation. It is especially these issues where an opinion is best held in low regard. If it is, then as more facts are acquired on the subject, more perspectives incorporated into the deliberations, the more the opinion is malleable. This is what is meant by keeping an opinion in low regard: the ability to move and shift in perspective, without attachment to a defined outcome.
Yet current discourse, euphemistically characterised as "polarisation", is defined by the obverse of the coin: High-Regard Opinions. These are the opinions people hold that are so important to their sense of self that any information to the contrary, or differing perspective, becomes a threat to their very self-construct. With no separation between self and beliefs, there is no ability to distinguish between an intellectually honest critique of the belief(s) and a personal attack on the self, creating a reactionary discourse of belief defences.
When opinions are held in high regard, compromise becomes akin to capitulation. Dialogue around political and social issues has degenerated into an unyielding, obstinate, inflexible, fight-to-the-death need for victory over 'The Other Side' (whoever and whatever that may be in the circumstances). Only in such a landscape can words, or even no words at all, be considered akin to "violence" and "harm". People now hold socio-political ideas and beliefs that are such a part of their sense of self that any other viewpoints are akin to an act of violence against their self. The superfluous use of this word - violence - is testament to the gravity of the perceived threat posed by words on a page, a verbally articulated differing opinion, or even silence itself.
In his 2009 essay, 'Keep Your Identity Small', Paul Graham highlighted the same issue. Since debates over religion or politics are ultimately about ones identity, it is impossible for people to be bipartisan, and therefore to think clearly about a given issue. In 2021, we can layer social issues on top of religion and politics as an additional subject matter where opinions are predicated on identity, and about which people are incapable of thinking clearly.
As Graham pointed out, whether a topic engages someone's identity is not dependent on the topic, but the person. The substance and merits of the topic are swept away in the face of an individual for whom the topic has suddenly become about them. It's personal. And when there is a total lack of distinction between self and subject, the capacity to see and think clearly evaporates, leaving an irrational, emotional, chimpanzee with a pre-frontal cortex that has been hijacked by their amygdala. If opinions are best held in low regard, ideas and theories are best kept at arms length.
Only in the distance between self and idea lies room to entertain challenges to that idea, and crucially, the potential for new information to render that particular idea as less than ideal, or entirely unsound. Falsifiability of beliefs requires this separation between self and ideas, in the absence of which the potential for new information to discount the veracity of that idea is not seen merely for what it is - new information - but as a threat to the individuals' very self-construct.
The problem with Big Identity/High-Regard Opinions is that it treats the formation of ideas and beliefs as a static, rather than dynamic, process. There may be information that goes into the initial forming of an opinion on an issue, and an individual may be correct in forming that opinion based on the information available at that moment. But that might be incomplete knowledge. If an opinion early formed is held in high regard, then it is held as an absolute. Someone may have been right to form it initially, but can be wrong defending it indefinitely. The declaration of "I am X" rather than "I think X at this current time" is not merely academic, but fundamental to the current inability of society to engage in basic shared sense-making of any issues, from the rudimentary (mask wearing) to the complex (transgender athletes).
Scholar Diarmaid MacCulloch, in his masterful history of the European Reformation, wrote the following in relation to the conflict that arose based on a very simple scientific exercise of changing the dating system from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar:
"An issue which could hardly seem more practical or a matter of calculations was caught up in passions which left rationality at a discount."
The distinguished Jesuit mathematician who undertook the project of updating the calendar, Christopher Clavius, would be forgiven at dismaying from the grave the fact that, in 2021, we are no more further along than 1582 on discounted rationality.
This is evident socially, politically, and in the media. Consider this constellation of labels from one single social media profile I had the misfortune of coming across:
That is One Big Identity. Slightly disappointed 'John 3:16' didn't make the list. However, avoid the temptation to read "identity politics" as inherently related to a side of the political spectrum. While identitarianism is certainly the defining feature of the modern Left, the Right has always played the politics of identity, and while finger-pointing at the Left and shouting "identity politics". The difference is simply one of scope: the identitarianism of the Left is innumerate, per the dizzying array of declaratory beliefs above, while the identitarianism of the Right is narrow.
In principle, there would be nothing necessarily wrong with this if opinions were held in low regard. Except, the opinions that dominate prevailing narratives are not held in low regard. They are held as a line in the sand on a given issue. These are opinions held on a given issue that are inherently tied to an individuals identity, important to their sense of self, and self-worth. Keeping ones identity small engenders flexibility in thought, thus cultivating epistemic humility and intellectual honesty, while a layered Big Identity stifles flexible thinking, and breeds epistemic arrogance and intellectual dishonesty. The need to be right is an inevitable consequence of Big Identity/High-Regard Opinions.
This has played out politically. Through the early post-Second World War period, political parties were more ideologically, and sometimes regionally, diverse. However, political parties have come to represent what Ezra Klein termed "mega-identities", where the label of 'Democrat' or 'Republican', 'Tory' or 'Labour', no longer mean just a particular voting allegiance, but a composite identity that subsumes defined stances on any given issue. Immigration, race, religion, abortion, trans rights, the economy, what newspaper they read, what commentators they like, who they date, are all defined within the political "mega-identity", and it is the overall identity differences that drives polarisation, not any one issue position.
People are even less likely now to marry someone who votes for a different political party. Although this is merely one example, it serves to highlight a wider trend: that social and ideological identity issues have become increasingly aligned to the Left-Right political spectrum. This all adds up into a Big Identity/High-Regard Opinion complex. None of this is confined to one side of the political spectrum, but the modern Left bears more culpability in creating this venomous environment. It is in this environment that corrosive behaviours like 'cancel culture', perhaps overstated by the Right but certainly hand-waved off by the Left, have been legitimised. It is only in a climate where the Big Identity is threatened by a different point of view that an atmosphere of 'deplatforming' can survive. Concepts like "intersectionality", once grounded in some legal sensibility, have evolved into the basis for absurdity in the creation of Big Identity, creating an impossible landscape to navigate because there can always be some part of someone, no matter how invented, that is baked into High-Regard Opinion. The unfortunate consequence, but reality, of this censorious and vindictive climate is that on core concepts integral to a well-functioning democracy, like freedom of speech and expression, the Left has willingly conceded the moral high ground to the Right, who don't in reality care about free speech as a means for effective dialogue as much as their entitlement to continue to air feral opinions.
And it plays out in our media, where balance, intellectual honesty and perspective, have largely been replaced by feral speech, generating the current unforgiving and spiteful nature of socio-political discourse with ideologically aligned media outlets. There were once clear lines within journalism between fact-based reporting and opinion. Indeed, many broadsheets still retain a specific 'opinion' section. However, journalism itself has seen a major shift from the consensus on fairness and balance in reporting to the partisan perspectives that define the current media landscape. The media landscape has also expanded from broadsheet and redtop to include online outlets which, driven by the need for clicks to stay alive, drive a breed of reactionary outrage merchantry masquerading as ‘an alternative viewpoint’.
This is a defining characteristic of our current social and political landscape. And it is fundamentally anti-democratic. The rather large elephant in the room (painted rainbow by Google of course - Pride!) is that the alignment of self with socio-political doctrine is a core characteristic of authoritarian regimes. Freedom of thought, expression, and speech, require room to manoeuvre. Distance between self, ideas, and beliefs. Authoritarian regimes seek to subsume the individual into the overarching identity of the State, aligning all issue positions into one all-encompassing belief-system. This is not dissimilar in concept to Klein's "mega-identity" party allegiances, the sole distinction being that these "mega-identities" are currently divided between major political parties, rather than concentrated in a one-party State. It shouldn't take too much foresight to see how little would need to change for a majoritarian imposition of de-facto one-party authoritarianism "mega-identity" politics in a number of Western democracies.
A diverse array of opinion is an important part of a healthy society, as different perspectives can be offered, engaged with, examined, and provide a basis upon to which to reach a shared consensus. Shared consensus is, however, what society is currently incapable of, even on the most basic and rudimentary of issues.
Shared consensus does not mean uniform agreement or homogeneity of thought. It is the end result of the ventilation of disparate ideas and perspectives on the same issue, proceeding from a common base of facts, to arrive at a solution that is at least satisfactory to a majority of citizens. A process which may otherwise be known as compromise.
The benefit of small identity and low-regard opinions is that an individual's sense of self, self-worth, and place in society is not threatened by the emergence of new facts and information, by the possibility of changing their mind. To conclude with a quote from Graham's essay that should be a fridge magnet in every house:
"The more labels you have for yourself, the dumber they make you."