Where do opinions come from?
I won’t answer that (too complicated).
Is it responsible to form opinions based on fake news? What about news that is marketed as fake, also known as freshly published fiction?
I won’t answer that either (too political).
Let’s stay within the confines of the safe, if old-fashioned, world where books are a source of knowledge, information, and formative experiences.
What happens when you pick up a book about a topic you know nothing about?
That I will answer: you incorporate what you have just read into your general sense of the world. You might also make up your mind about the book, you may—gasp!—form an opinion about the chief topic discussed.
The opinion will be based on your experiences, your background, your imagination, your state of mind at the time, all as a reaction to the book.
I call that opinion seeding.
You have been given a seed—fictional or not, believable or not—to plant in the fertile fields of your mind.
Is one seed enough?
Well, no, obviously, you say, that’s like admitting you’re satisfied with a single piece of information, a single viewpoint; it’s like saying you want only one side of an argument, or one plant as a sample of a whole ecosystem. (I actually hate garden work.)
Right, you’re in favour of well-informed opinions?
But it’s so easy to forget that.
I’ll get on Freud’s virtual couch here, and self-analyse for you.
I read a single book One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and got a very gloomy picture of the state of psychiatry in the 1950s. Possibly it slotted in well with the cultural references I was familiar with, possibly it reinforced some long-standing biases. Still, I hadn’t read anything about mental institutions in the 1950’s before, so I formed an opinion based on Kesey’s fictional account.
I could have stopped there.
But I didn’t. (Lucky me, I had a blog to research for.)
I wanted a non-fictional account, so I came across Nellie Bly’s Ten Days in a Mad-House. That too was gloomy, and in some ways worse because it was a real account of a real asylum in the 1980s.
Again, I could have stopped there, but I didn’t. (I have at least three articles a week to write, and I’m a naturally optimistic person.)
The third book I picked was not Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain which is pure drab lifelessness, no matter what others say. Nor was it some true horror set in a state institution in Stalinist Russia or Mao’s China or Vietnam. Instead I picked a photo essay, Asylum : Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals by Christopher Payne, and one with a positive spin. The clouds of doom parted and I saw sun through the eyes of a relieved asylum inmate.
Could I have lived thinking to myself that nobody ever wanted to go to a lunatic asylum, that it was all torture and disaster? Sure. And in most other cases, I probably walk around with the biggest unconscious bias.
But there’s a moral somewhere in there.
Opinions in general—unless actively researched and considered—will be a product of luck, experience, and circumstance.
That sounds awfully arbitrary in general; that’s why we’ve specialised to the easier-to-handle literary case.
With regards to reading: luck first plays a role when you choose a book. A book outside your area of expertise, as most books will have been at one time, may crucially influence your outlook and calcify into your personality a bias unbidden.
But how do I form opinions responsibly then, you say, is it not hopeless?
It’s hard, not hopeless. I propose a simple recipe.
- Read at least three sources.
- Make them as diverse as possible.
- Stop yourself from doing precisely what I recommend you do in my post How-to: Find a Book You’ll Enjoy because you’re not trying to reinforce self-selection, but avoid it.
- And remember my completely unhelpful, unrhymed anti-mnemonic:
One is biased,
two is insufficient,
three is the smallest diversity.
When it comes to fake news—you’re on your own.
PS: I know I promised I’d keep bottled the cynical, pontificating how-to voice, and I managed a whole three weeks!
But at least, if you’ve made it this far down the page, I can tell you about a cool figure of speech employed in the first few lines of the post: it’s called paralipsis (meaning to leave to one side, pass by) or, synonymously, occultatio (meaning concealment, insinuation, suggestion) and is a type of irony.
Occultatio emphasises a fact or a statement by explicitly claiming to pass over it. It can be used to introduce people or characters or pointed remarks. Or, like above, to put the reader in a particular frame of mind.
How many times have you said: Not to mention, knowing full-well that what follows is the point of your argument? Or worse, with the intention of sneaking in a sideways jab at the subject, while hiding behind the thin veil of I didn’t want to mention it, I was trying not to mention it, but now that I have you can unhear it if you’d rather. Alright, perhaps that idiom is so worn by now it almost doesn’t count as occultatio, and indeed counts at the opposite (in a heated argument).
The adult version of occultatio is when you first tell someone you will explicitly avoid a particularly sensitive topic, therefore assuaging their concerns and ensuring their attention, after which you proceed to gently guide arguments into that precise topic. Devious, and hard to fend off.
Occultatio only works because we cannot unhear, as ever lawyer, politician, and news-hype-slant-garbage source on the internet knows, but it helps a little to name the beast.
- Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman. Because it’ll set help you navigate your biases better.