Monday, 20 June 2011

A matter of opinion

Culture Cul De Sac By Jacqueline Pereira 

A person’s views are shaped by perceptions and thought processes personal to him.

COLUMNISTS often receive responses to their articles, from people moved to agree or (sometimes vehemently) disagree with views published the previous week. Either way, it’s all part of the process of expression and exchange.

Dissenting opinions are invaluable, as they open our eyes to different reasoning and new lines of discussion. And, in a country like ours, the variety of opinions astounds, from the absurd that amuses to the profound that provokes.

Adding to this colourful discourse are the quirky conclusion, the untested premise, the unaccepted assertion.

Which is a perfect recipe for a lively, entertaining debate. If we genuinely have an opinion.

Unfortunately, as Oscar Wilde once said: “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.”

But diverse opinions add to a delightful cauldron that is society, constantly cooking, spouting a range of views in its steam.

On a wider scale, public opinion refers to attitudes and positions collectively adopted by a group of people. In many cases these shared opinions contribute to policy-making, either in their communities or the country itself.

A case in point is the Arab Spring. Months after the first stirrings in Tunisia and Egypt, affected governments in the Middle East and North Africa (collectively known as MENA) are still reeling from the effects of not reacting earlier to the voices of their citizens. Despite the clampdowns and killings, large numbers across Mena continue to demand that their opinions be heard and respected.

Individual opinions matter, but we must remember that personal opinions are firstly that – personal – and are based on a person’s perceptions and thought processes. And it can come as a surprise that we don’t see eye to eye with someone, or follow his train of thought. When we try to think like the other, our thought train comes to a halt.

The unappreciated beauty of opinions is that they matter most to the person who utters them. Listeners are allowed, as they wish, to gauge, judge and accept the proffered view. But opinions can change. All the time.

Take fashion as an example. We may be lusting after a fashion item – like a Fendi Silvana handbag this season – while making dramatic plans to acquire next season’s Burberry Grainy Leather Tote (in red). And that’s all right.

The much-maligned Obedient Wives Club, too, has a right to its opinions. Derided it may be, but its founders and followers have their beliefs, and they choose to stand by them. We, as listeners, are free to disagree.

To cultivate an open mind, it is imperative to question every opinion. Just because some people say it louder, go on about it longer, or keep repeating their views over and over again, it does not mean that what they say is right.

Opinions must be met with some measure of doubt, no matter how convincing the orator. A well-argued opinion, backed with indisputable facts, may change your view. But it can often also be used as a vehicle for an orator with his own agenda – as in the case of a smooth salesman who’s out to sell refrigerators to Eskimos.

Putting forward an opinion involves the art of persuasion, not polemic, not put-down, not a litany of facts. Aided by a coherent thought process, building from experience and backed with information, an opinion enables an individual to take a stand.

Naturally, opinions differ. This is most evident in political systems worldwide. Each side of the divide shores up its support. What matters most here, though, is that the protagonists do not stop talking – and listening – to differing views. There is evidence that we become more entrenched in our opinions if we only interact with people of the same persuasion and, as a result, narrow rather than broaden our view.

It is the skill of speakers to persuade people and rally them to their way of thinking. Meanwhile, people have to decide on their own, based on what they hear. In the end they make up their own minds, drawing on their own values and experiences.

Lastly, let’s not forget that to hold an opinion is an act of courage. Especially if you are going against the grain or ruffling a few feathers. Even the thought of an unconventional opinion is enough to get some people bristling, bursting at a moment’s notice to counter the argument vehemently.

But there is a difference between a person with an opinion and an opinionated person.

So, before responding, it is best to think and reflect, and definitely not be afraid to have an opinion. And let others have theirs.

As the 18th-century French writer and philosopher Voltaire said: “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

People, places and perceptions inspire writer Jacqueline Pereira. In this column, she rummages through cultural differences and revels in discovering similarities. Check her out on Facebook.