While reading comments on a friend’s post the other day I found myself getting agitated by some of the people weighing in with their opinions. To be fair, my friend had invited his entire “Facebook community” to offer input so there were a lot of different kinds of people with a lot of different kinds of opinions. It felt a bit like someone asking a group ranging from toddler to senior citizen what they’d like to eat for dinner with the options being everything from cupcakes to quinoa. I could feel my rising agitation and I began to investigate and examine what it was that was really agitating me. I felt pretty sure that I wasn’t particularly agitated at any of the comments themselves. I further concluded that I wasn’t feeling agitated by the substance of any particular opinions. The thing that was really bothering me had to do with WHO was commenting. What made them think they had any credibility to speak on this subject?!?
I know, I know- pretty judgmental of me, right? But I knew some of these commenters as “mutual friends.” I knew details regarding their lifestyles, their contexts, their backgrounds, their attitudes toward religion, their political leanings. I knew some of their habits and behaviors. They were weighing in on a subject that, in my judgment, based on my observations of their lives, they had very little credibility to “weigh in” on. Their words expressed opinions that their lifestyles contradicted. They were offering their insight in an arena they had in practice deemed a pointless waste of time. As previously stated, my friend had offered an open invitation to the entirety of his friends list. He gathered a broad sample rather than a refined search. Ultimately, this was his problem, not mine. Nevertheless, in that moment I was reacquainted with a truth we all seem reluctant to acknowledge: not all opinions are equal.
Perhaps I was blindsided by the rising agitation within me because, living in a democratic society where “every person gets just one vote and every vote counts the same” and where the values of tolerance and acceptance of diversity have taught us to suppress any kind of judgement, I thought the feeling was bad. Our egalitarian society tends to downplay and dismiss any sense of hierarchy or meritocracy. Everyone is welcome at our table. What I’m realizing is that this idea, instead of being a gracious allowance we extend toward others has become an obnoxious and arrogant demand that we be given our RIGHT to speak. We have deluded ourselves into believing that our individual voices should matter just as much as every other. I’m not convinced they should. Some people have more right to speak than others and often the rest of us should just shut up and listen rather than cluttering the conversation.
And this applies to me too. In my more lucid and self-aware moments, I have to admit that I don’t know everything. I haven’t had the time or resources to expertly investigate every subject. I often have nothing valuable to contribute. Yet, there are others better informed than I who are prepared to give an informed and nuanced opinion on a variety of subjects regarding which I am almost completely ignorant. At the same time, there are some subjects that I have studied and experienced far more completely than most and have prepared myself to articulate a reasoned opinion that probably needs to be heard. Maybe there should be more to our decision to speak than simply responding to every open invitation or just taking our turn to talk. Maybe we should all be a bit less democratic when giving and taking advice. Maybe it’s wise to consider the source.
Turns out that agitated feeling was exposing the fact that I really do care about what qualifies me and others to speak. And I don’t believe I’m alone in this. When a person has an established, well-documented reputation of proven character and proven results her opinion matters to me and I will seek it out specifically. I will ask her to speak. Her reputation has already spoken qualification to me before she even opens her mouth. Another person may have a thorough education and a head full of information and theory, yet he may be young, inexperienced, and untested. My attention and acceptance of his opinions will likely be measured tentatively and partially. I’m fairly certain everyone weighs opinions by a similar process.
I think we all make decisions about what to do with the opinions we are hearing as we listen to the person giving them and I’m convinced that we base much of that choice primarily on who we believe is speaking. But isn’t that prejudiced to pre-decide to listen so skeptically? I think that thought is why I first felt agitated; I mistook the feeling as prejudice and felt guilty. Upon further reflection, I’ve concluded that my decision to “take some opinions with a grain of salt” is not actually prejudice. It is a personal assessment of the reputation of that individual that does not prejudge anything but rather follows the evidence of past behaviors I’ve observed and weighs new information against that body of evidence. It informs me how I ought to proceed in the future. I’m always open to the possibility of a person changing but it would be foolish to ignore what I know about where that person is coming from.
That initial irritation alerted me to a truth I think we all know intrinsically–every one of us values some speakers’ opinions more highly than others. And I think that’s okay. In fact, I think it’s right and proper. I think it’s good and helpful to do so. We should care about the credentials of the one giving the opinion- what does she really know about the subject? Does his past show evidence of hypocrisy, dishonesty, or a lack of credibility? We should ask ourselves, as we invariably do, albeit often only on a gut level, “Why should I listen to HER?” We decide how we will listen based on our individual assessment of the qualifications of the one speaking. If we value a speaker as credible and trustworthy, we will listen more attentively and more freely assimilate his opinions. If a speaker seems ignorant or has shown a lack of character in the past we will discount her opinions or may disregard them altogether.
All of this likely begs the question, “Why should you be listening to me?” Maybe you shouldn’t. But if you’re still reading this after all the long-windedness above, thank you for your patience. Apparently I didn’t have it all as clear in my head as I thought I did and writing it out has helped me to process and articulate it. Maybe you should take everything I’ve said with a grain of salt until you have a chance to weigh my words against my character and credentials.
What I’m beginning to realize is that giving an opinion is a pretty bold and audacious act. Often the giving of an opinion is bellowed loudly from a place of arrogant hubris, bitter resentment or egotistical self-righteousness instead of being offered out of gentleness, humility, and love. In judging these others I’m realizing that maybe I shouldn’t be so quick to demand “my equal seat” next to the likes of Einstein, Socrates and C.S. Lewis. Maybe I should follow the advice of James and the Holy Spirit to be a little “slower to speak,” a bit more reluctant to “instruct others.” I have also come to recognize that pointing to God’s opinions (recorded in Scripture) as authoritative is not the arrogant act some accuse it of being; it is in fact an act of supreme humility. Any time we take ownership of someone else’s opinion by quoting them authoritatively, we have placed our own viewpoint in an inferior position to one we are quoting. We are acknowledging that we humbly believe that they know better than we do and their words are of more value than our own. It would be more logical to accuse the source of the quotation as arrogant and judge the one who quotes as foolishly humble.
As I reflect on all these judgments we make regarding others, I acknowledge the need to apply the same standard to myself. How does my character, my credentials and my reputation affect others’ valuation of my opinion? I need to acknowledge that our culturally assumed “right to speak” does not necessarily guarantee the desired result of being heard, being respected and certainly doesn’t guarantee that any of my words will be heeded. I realize that I need to step back from my own opinions before sharing them to examine my own character and qualification. I’m also realizing that the status of “valued opinion” is an award from others that is earned as much by who I am as what I say.