The Art of Ambivalence

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In today’s technological age we constantly have information at our finger tips. News channels, Websites and Apps allow us to keep up with current affairs and useless, yet interesting, statistics and facts. However, rather than being presented with simple information, facts and statistics, allowing us to have our own opinion we are instead being bombarded by ‘expert’ opinion and emotive stories aimed at presenting a packaged opinion ready to be digested. In this day and age where opinions are given thoughtlessly and often ignorantly, are we unable to be ambivalent, has the proverbial fence receded from public consciousness and ability?

I am not condemning all opinion, however, after all everyone is entitled to one. I am merely pointing out that one man’s personal opinion does not make it the truth. Also there is a big difference between experts, media ‘experts’ and public opinion which seem to be weighted equally by News organisations. A leading expert’s opinion in the field he has spent years studying should have more authority than the general public being stopped in the street.  Moreover, there is also very little credibility in journalists’ and media ‘experts’’ opinions, but we it as truth. Why not? They are being paid for their opinion, but payment doesn’t mean truth. This is riddled throughout our society and has made our News more subjective than factual. For example Walter Cronkite’s statement concerning the Vietnam War, “We are mired in stalemate”, could be the most influential words about the war itself. His opinion according to Lyndon B. Johnson cost the US the war and altered public opinion, one man’s ‘expert’ opinion became instrumental in history.

More recently Kate Middleton was described by Hilary Mantel as “appear[ing]… to have been designed by a committee and built by craftsmen, with a perfect plastic smile and the spindles of her limbs hand-turned and gloss-varnished”. This scandal was broadcast on every British News channel, and was so important that David Cameron had to issue a statement whilst on a trip to India. One woman’s opinion made the headlines and forced a comment on the matter by the Prime Minister. Her opinion became irrelevant; the opinion against her statement was almost universal even to those who didn’t understand the context in which she said it. The opposing opinion became the true news.

Then comes the death of Baroness Thatcher and its coverage by BBC news. Firstly, the news of an old woman dying of natural causes is an important and sensitive subject to her friends and family, but it shouldn’t have caused the media circus that it did. Yes, she was the Prime Minister, received full military honours and a funeral in St. Paul’s Cathedral, but does the topic really deserve almost a week of opinion led news? Accompanying the media fest were politicians’ ‘sound-bites’, mostly reprimanding the ‘left’ for usurping Thatcher’s death for their own political agenda. But opinion itself usurped the news of Thatcher’s death. The most important piece of journalism was whether or not the BBC Radio One chart show would play ‘Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead’, altering the meaning of the original story. Once again, the news was overshadowed by opinions and counter-opinions.

Obviously opinion has begun to dominate our culture and view of the world, and in doing so has left an inability to just let things lie and keep our opinions to ourselves. The presence of social media has only exacerbated our inability to be ambivalent. If everyone’s opinion can be read, retweeted and reported then opinion becomes more than just personal. Moreover, everyone’s opinions are encouraged by the media; their opinions, annoyances and nonsense are broadcast and debated. Twitter and Facebook become new media platforms that everyone’s opinions can be announced from.

The derivation of our opinions also causes issues: How can we trust an article or a video? Do we have any ‘real’ facts to back up our opinions? Robin Ince believes “The learned have sullied their mind with information. The Aristotelians of the internet, the cocksure and the commonsensical, know what is right for no other reason than they do”. The irony is that information overload has impeded our ability to reach a well-reasoned opinion, or to not form one at all. Moreover, our access to information has made everyone feel knowledgeable enough to hold an opinion. Everyone, therefore, becomes an ‘expert’ and this vainglory has tarnished news, journalism and opinions as a whole. Neil Postman stated that we should cut down our opinions by one third; today that percentage is a lot higher.

Without opinion we may finally find the truth, hidden beneath the nonsense that we call news. But how can we cut down our intake of opinion? Avoiding opinion in this day and age is unmanageable, even an embargo on the internet leaves us with the know-it-all at the watering hole. The impossibility of reducing our opinion intake leaves one solution, questioning the opinions we hear. Increasing our scepticism may allow us to perch ourselves upon the fence missing from modern thought. We also need to recognise when we are also too opinionated. In the spirit of this, yes, this is my own ‘expert’ opinion and it’s your choice whether to acknowledge its merits or question its obsolescence.

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