Lately I’ve noticed something that I’m sure the rest of you have: the way we form opinions, stick to them, don’t stick to them, and argue in their favor with little to no budge room. The ability to express oneself is, I believe, one of the hardest things to do, mainly because there is no guarantee that what is swirling around in one person’s mind will make sense to another. Furthermore, what we express may not even be accepted by other people, and there is nothing scarier than expressing an opinion you believe will be immediately rejected for one reason or another. We live in a world that is constantly communicating with itself, but I notice communication failure so regularly in so many different contexts that I can’t help but wonder what is responsible for it.
I first noticed this issue after reading an article published in the Amherst Student on abortion. Since then, I’ve been thinking seriously about how people form thoughts, how those thoughts are expressed, and what, if anything, is lost in the transmission. Be it an seemingly insignificant conversation with a friend, a discussion in class on the latest political ramblings, or even an online dialogue between the writers and readers of this very blog site, I believe we could all benefit from a bit more empathy and a little less rigidity, myself included.
There is no such thing, in my opinion, as absolute truth. But when we express our opinions we are sharing a piece of ourselves that, up until that moment, was safely encased in our own minds. The release of that information, whatever it may be, is synonymous with becoming publicly vulnerable. Another variable in the tendency to approach our arguments with stubborn finality stems from how we as human beings use, study, and observe language in various settings and perhaps fail to take its power as seriously as we should. Coupled with how society constructs and reacts to the very idea of difference itself, the outcome is fairly predictable; predictable, but not very productive.
The level of aggression I’ve noticed in daily dialogues, various email incidents this semester, pieces of journalism of any form, be it newspapers, magazines, online blogs, television, and so on, is truly frightening. The simple concept of people having their opinions and sticking by them, which seems pretty straightforward and harmless in theory, has become intimidating, threatening, and considerably more silencing of other voices in practice. I was recently informed, for example, that non-liberal students feel uncomfortable expressing themselves amidst the mass of liberal students, not only in the 1,000 acres that is Amherst College but even in the general Pioneer Valley Area. Political expression is, I believe, one of the most highly charged and hotly polarizing areas of discussion today, and because of this tension between thought and language, society has generated more discord than productive discourse.
We need to consider the implications of having the power and ability to express ourselves, but we also need to be able to do so in a way that does not negate the experience of those who disagree with us. Discussion, debate, and disagreement are natural aspects of life and can be beautiful things if executed respectfully and openly. They do not need aggression to be effective.