opinionated is a *pauses to count* eleven-letter word

I find expressing a strong opinion difficult, and scary. For the same reason, I think, that I can sing my heart out in a choir and choke up the moment I come to sing a solo. An opinion is a definitive thing. It invites people to see you clearly. Or maybe clearly’s the wrong word. Maybe it’s that it invites people to see you as one thing – and as definitively not other things. An opinion places and disambiguates you.

The other day on the tram a young man engaged with an old homeless dude. The homeless dude was going off on a rant against the privatised public transport system – and instead of placating him with meaningless “Uh-huh”s, as I would have done had I not outright ignored him, the young guy agreed, disagreed, gave his own opinion.

He very decidedly talked about how the social welfare system doesn’t work, and why. I found it excruciating just to be stuck on the tram, while his voice carried his opinion clearly in the otherwise-quiet. I had this cringing need to say, Don’t you realise all these people will think you’re a paranoid lefty? Don’t you realise you’re diminishing yourself in their eyes?

The problem with definitive opinions, of course, is that nothing is definitive. Every human thing is subjective, and can be seen, always, from all sides. We decide that one side is better based on things like morality, but morality is just as shifting as the concepts it attempts to illuminate.

For a long time this seemed to me like a good reason to remain undecided about things. I felt quite enlightened, being someone who could see all sides of an issue. In the last little while it’s come to seem more like cowardice.

The way you make your place in the world is to declare what you think. And the way you do that is to…think.

I know I talk a lot about the wonder of actually thinking about things, as though it’s this marvellous new concept. Which may seem weird. But I believe people truly stop and think something through far less often than we imagine. I know it’s true for me, anyway. Much easier to take a quick, mental survey of something, come up with a good-enough answer, and run with that. And let’s face it – most of the time that does the job.

I only had one lecturer in my whole university degree who said to me, “Stop. Look at the question. Now think about the question.” I wish all my lecturers had bothered to say it, and encouraged me to bother to discover what I truly thought rather than performing the mental gymnastics that draw interesting conclusions. (Which are fun in their own way, don’t get me wrong!)

When you voice a decided opinion, you become definite. You become someone that other people can grasp. You become, I think, admirable.

Last year on the Gruen Transfer a panel of advertising executives were asked what single piece of advice they’d give Julia Gillard to give her the best chance of winning the election. Only one answer seemed to me like it had the power to change public opinion: Come out strongly in favour of gay marriage. If you want to see just how admirable having an opinion makes someone, look at Obama’s public statement of support.

His whole job is to represent the differing view points of millions of people. There is no collective right answer to this issue (just to be clear, I have an opinion on this point, and I think there most certainly is a right answer – but I’m talking about the subjective nature of “right”). He could easily have remained wishy-washy, but he comes into bold focus – he seems incredibly human – when he tells us where he stands.

The tricky part is, of course, that people who freely and definitively express opinions can often be incredibly obnoxious. Opinionated. So I’m adding the caveat that I admire strong opinion – in someone who remains open to argument and persuasion. Obama admitted that he wasn’t initially in favour of gay marriage, but that talking to friends and family had changed his mind.

It takes a certain strength to admit to an opinion. It takes grace and courage to admit you were wrong.

You may be wondering whether this diatribe has anything to do with writing. The answer to that is a predictable Why yes, it does.

It’s not only characters who are more interesting when they are definitively one thing and not other things – and even more interesting when they come to see how their opinions might have been wrongly-held, or limiting. People write better books when they boldly declare an opinion.

The erotic romance writer Tiffany Reisz said on twitter the other night, “I’m editing this book, and I love it. And I’ll probably get arrested.” It made me cheer inside, and I thought, If you don’t fear you might get arrested for what you write, you’re probably not reaching deep enough. That may sound extreme, but her most recent book is electrifying to read.

And as I may or may not have mentioned here before: My only fixed dream for the future is that someday a reviewer will say of my book, “Reading it made me go electric.”

Comments 6 Responses

  1. robenagrant

    Love the post. I had a lecturer who would pose a question and then say in response to an answer, are you sure about that? He always stimulated us to question ourselves and to broaden our outlook. And one of the reasons I admire author, Jennifer Crusie, so much is that she “owns” her stuff. She doesn’t answer anonymously. She answers publicly and strongly and uses her name. With Obama, he became a real person to me in that interview, less of a figurehead, or a celebrity, but someone I could sit down with at dinner and discuss the important issues of the world. I’m really into “owning your stuff” but also being respectful of other people’s opinions. Obama did that. With grace.

    1. anna cowan Post author

      “Are you sure about that?” I love it. It seems almost counter-intuitive to question a given opinion, but it’s quite amazing what it uncovers. If you’re anything like me then in conversation you sometimes start speaking one of those really general phrases, and realise it wasn’t what you meant to say at all, you were just talking on auto-pilot! We assume language is a conscious act, but so often I don’t think it is.

      Great point about Jenny Crusie, too – in the age of the internet it’s particularly impressive to own your opinions, and stand where you stand. I feel as you did about Obama’s speech – that it made him very human. Leadership does rely on rhetoric, I guess, but it’s heartening to know that we also respond to personal integrity – and that it’s important.

  2. kate.o.d

    “It’s not only characters who are more interesting when they are definitively one thing and not other things – and even more interesting when they come to see how their opinions might have been wrongly-held, or limiting. People write better books when they boldly declare an opinion.”

    Definitely! And I love thinking about this in terms of YA – my particular interest, as you know –

    I am opinionated. Sometimes belligerently so. I feel bad about ranting about how much I hate the idea of the flu shot to people who think the flu shot is a good idea. I forgot to be open to discussion. But I try.

    You post reminded of an old Ani song:

    I am not an angry girl, but it seems like I got everyone fooled
    Anytime I say something they find hard to hear
    They chalk it up to my anger, never to their own fear

    1. anna cowan Post author

      those Ani lyrics are so excellent! This has been my year of thinking about where I stand on gender issues, so that is a direct hit, for me. I guess men are expected to know their own minds, but the same decidedness of opinion in a woman can be experienced as threatening. (And 2 things immediately occur to me: 1) I started that statement with a very friendly “I guess”; and 2) expressing an opinion threatens my own gendered experience, but might not necessarily threaten whoever I’m talking to – i.e. I’m the one who carries that particular restraint around with me.)

    2. anna cowan Post author

      oh, also – so much of discussion around YA eventually devolves to “Which topics are okay to touch”, so I can imagine this being particularly pertinent – or that authors have to fight particularly hard with themselves to express strong opinions through their work.

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