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Knowledge and Opinion

Here in Alberta, we just finished a provincial election. The campaign was hard-fought, with plenty of discussion on both policy and some of the nastier personal attacks that are typical of trench-fighting in government. Parties were accused variously of racism, elitism, incompetence, homophobia, and various other unsavoury ‘isms’.

Occasionally I mention big political events like this to students; not to give my own opinion, but to see how aware they are of their environment and what sort of thoughts they have about its future. You can also tell a lot about what their families think about given issues by their responses. Students younger than about 16 or so tend to share the opinions of their parents when it comes to things like politics and other controversial issues, just because they have less personal experience with the outcomes of such things, and so absorb the best second-hand information they can get, which they tend to view as their parents’ knowledge.

As I do this discussion with students, and even with various adults, I realize that there is a profound disconnect in our modern world between a vigorous opinion and actual knowledge. This goes hand in glove with the old admonition to not discuss politics or religion over the dinner table because no one agrees about it. It seems to me that people are most likely to have an overwhelmingly strong opinion in the area of something they have little knowledge in.

Take my early musical training and life as a less divisive example. I, like many other beginning ‘classical’ musicians, liked to turn my nose down at anything that wasn’t able to fit in my nice little box of tonal music. Rap? Yuck, that’s not music. Serialism? Don’t give me garbage like that. Bach? Ahh, that’s the stuff. Beethoven? Who DOESN’T like Beethoven.

I had relatively little experience and knowledge of the variety and differences of music outside of my own little-traveled box of opinion. I didn’t listen to things like rap, minimalism, or post-tonal stuff on a regular basis, but yet I was violently against them.

It was only once I was forced to study a wide variety of musical styles that I was able to say, “Okay, I might not LIKE this, but that has very little to due with its worthiness to be included in music.” In my haste to prove I had a sophisticated opinion, I exaggerated or made up a bunch of ideas about things I had little actual knowledge of so I didn’t have to do any painful confronting of reason.

People seem to do this with anything that might be remotely controversial. Politics, for instance. I have heard various opinions that certain parties in this past election were inherently racist, or sexist, or espousing dangerous ‘socialist’ ideas. The amount of evidence for any of these things tended to be based entirely on opinion, and not even opinion formed from original fact. Asking certain people what ‘socialism’ actually meant tended to elicit responses like ‘taxes’, which is possibly the least-productive definition of an ideology I have ever heard.

Confronting this with reason is very hard to do. People (myself included) love the feeling of being ‘in the right’. You ‘know’ something to be true in spite of the ‘incorrect’ opinions of others. It’s a great feeling. However, it’s also terrible for the progress of society. Masses of people with this mentality only encourage violent divisions with no recourse for common ground.

I don’t mean to say here that our politicians are all stupid and encourage division. They are masters of spin, implying things and taking stances based on what they think people want. It’s the fault of the community at large for being unwilling to compromise. The less you are willing to give on any issue, the more chance of someone being in violent disagreement with you. And once that argument starts, that other person is already too frustrated with you to ever compromise.

I think what it boils down to is that as much as we would love to have all citizens be equally well-informed and participating with the same level of dedication to the democratic process, there are situations where you ideally just have to say that you don’t know enough to have a discussion. People find this very hard, and I see why. However, I personally find that a lot easier than arguing for 6 hours with someone who uses opinions shared amongst family for years to cover for a gap in knowledge.

Oh, and in case all of this is my opinion and not actually realistic… well, I like to be right, so let me be deluded. At least until my wife tells me where I’m wrong.

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