Why We Must All Have An Opinion on Everything Today

A friend reminded me of a great essay by the novelist and short story writer Richard Ford on the subject of our velocitous life, which ran a few years ago in the NY Times. It’s long, so I’m going to post it below the fold, but know that it’s very much worth reading. Here’s the crucial quote:

Put simply, the pace of life feels morally dangerous to me. And what I wish for is not to stop or even to slow it, but to be able to experience my lived days as valuable days. We all just want to keep our heads above the waves, find someplace to stand. If anything, that’s our human nature.

(Published: December 27, 1998

NEW ORLEANS – Worrisome things are happening to my sense of the now. Maybe many of us are feeling that way. And maybe it has to do with the end of our millennium fast approaching, and the profound implication that someone else’s millennium is beginning. But whatever the reason, now — by which I mean our experience of the present moment, that ever-passing, uncertain platform upon which we recognize ourselves to be alive, and appraise how life seems — that now feels under attack. Wittgenstein wrote that he who lives in the present lives in eternity. But I’m sure he didn’t have in mind a present (or an eternity) like this one.

Chiefly, what I’m talking about are the ways in which that series of present moments we describe collectively as our real lives is made insignificant, made ignoble or forgettable, made hellish or made in essence non-existent by all sorts of forces outside our brains, yet forces whose existence we may have complicity with.

Just think about some easy trivial examples: those ubiquitous television sets in airport waiting areas broadcasting programs (usually stock market reports) we don’t want to see or hear; unconscionable numbers of messages in our E-mail, all demanding replies; intrusive requests for, or reports about, our opinions on issues or about other people’s opinions on issues we may have no opinion about whatsoever; phone calls at the dinner hour on the subject of platinum cards we don’t own and don’t want. And, of course, much more.

Yes, you can say these are just insignificant annoyances and I’m peevish, and the velocity of life and change has increased — that ideas like dollars must flow freely, that the more exchange we have with the unknown the less we fear it, and that life feels full — just the way we always hoped it would.

But in an ominous way, these interruptions represent a turf battle over who’s going to say what I have on my mind at any present moment — now, in other words. And this battle seems to contain moral consequence lasting far beyond the moment or the individual interruption. Indeed, at the heart of the contest is an axiological paradox whereby the higher valuation placed on my immediate attention by others — vendors, let’s call them — is accompanied by or perhaps even causes a lower valuation to be placed on it by me, who’s after all losing these moments and having to reconcile their loss. It’s as though I had nows to burn. Except I don’t.

Yet here is an example of a different kind, albeit toward the same point. Last winter in a course I taught on magazine writing, class discussion at one point leaked onto the topic of the President’s then putative liaison with Monica Lewinsky. (This was months before the grand jury divulgences.) Who, I asked the students, thought the President had engaged with Ms. Lewinsky in a sexual act? Many hands went promptly up. Who, I then asked, thought no sexual acts had occurred? The remainder of the hands rose. But who, I asked, held no opinion?

An uncomfortable moment passed. No hands stirred. No one had no opinion.

When, however, I pointed out that no one actually knew what the President had or hadn’t done, and that the issue was a matter of fact and that therefore their opinions were, strictly speaking, worthless, and then wondered aloud why it was even interesting to have such an opinion, most of the students said they felt it was their ”right,” indeed it was their need and obligation to hold an opinion, and that it was wishy-washy and weak-minded to say you didn’t know. Even if you really didn’t know.

I was shocked. It always surprises me when thinking humans speculate about hard, demonstrable facts; as if their own ignorance conferred a contagious uncertainty upon the truth. But later I came to think that for my journalism students and maybe for many of us, professing an opinion is not evidence of a deliberate choice bearing upon being right or wrong, nor a moral positioning that even much looks to the outcome of whatever’s at issue.

Rather it is merely a spasmodic way to intensify a passing moment — a now — by making an act one performs seem to matter when in fact it doesn’t. In this way it is ethically tantamount to — though much less potentially valuable than — buying a lottery ticket. And instead of intensifying a moment, such hasty, feckless opinion-spouting trivializes it. In this case, a now has not been stolen, but wasted and devalued.

It’s pretty to think that in the old days — those prior, better times we unfortunately couldn’t be around for — things got done better: that even though the present was just as fleeting, moments were treated with more care; that when our predecessors, in their less velocitous lives, took a position, it was more a judgment than an opinion; and when no judgment was reachable that they waited for clarity to arrive, as if it mattered to them and to the subject if they were right or wrong — as if facts had consequence.

Probably I’m wrong about that time. Though recently I noticed in the prelude to the House Judiciary Committee’s impeachment vote, those undecided members were widely referred to in the press as ”mavericks,” an old-fashioned term, which I guess currently means those rare people who buck convention by awaiting clarity, doing their own thinking, and who use the present moment to assure that their judgment about the consequential future is as correct as possible. I can’t help thinking that it’s a perplexed age when for so many people it’s better to risk being wrong in the present than to wait for a chance to be right.

Goodness knows, this feeling of confusion about our nows is not just a result of time’s seeming to pass at greater speeds, although the particulars of that fast pace certainly do affect our ability to estimate how we’re getting along in life — bullying us on to whatever’s next, leaving our precious moments insufficiently seized and acknowledged, while making life feel hectic.

Everyone, after all, is gaudily making more money than we are. (Just look up at the TV monitor in the Northwest lounge.) Our new PC is already bested by another one just six months after we bought it (contributing to bad dreams of lost productivity). Charles Schwab’s getting three hundred thousand calls a day. Internet traffic’s doubling every one hundred days. Our amiable curiosity to know how our fellow Americans are thinking about this or that subject is being seduced by organized, high-priced media ”carpet-bombing” designed to stifle, not foster, the free flow of ideas. And already someplace, somebody has almost certainly cloned a human being by using technology that didn’t exist when we bought our new PC.

This feeling of swarming time naturally pushes us toward a keener awareness of death (usually not that pleasurable), at the same time that it causes us to feel left behind, back in the wake of greater opportunity and expectation. A sturdier sense of the moment as being something besides limbo could help us. Proust wrote that the rich taste of a madeleine made death seem to have no meaning for him. A magic cookie. That would be good.

Of course, I’d be happy to think that reading a novel or a short story or even a poem could help in this cause — a novel I wrote, or one that Proust did; that a story could pacify that sense of the ”indigenous American berserk” Philip Roth wrote about in his novel ”American Pastoral,” and by writing about it sought to calm it.

Novels and stories can also give double service to one’s sense of the now. They often imagine a persuasive fictive present within the book, a present upon which most all the action impends and where meaning and clarity can become apparent. And, while this is happening, they slow the reader’s pace and make him self-conscious so that his now is made vivid and of worth. In addition, novels are often all about these very important issues I’m arguing we’ve lost our good grip on; measuring cause and effect from a recognizable place in time; calculating the results of history; noticing how events of the moment can prefigure events still to come; recognizing our very selves and appraising how we are.

Frankly, I doubt if it’ll happen. I doubt people are going to read more novels, particularly the kind I just mentioned. This swarming sense of urgency, anxiety and possibility pose too great a force. Intelligence just means information now. And, anyway, there isn’t time. In 50 years, I’d be surprised if many people are even writing novels, or publishing them inside of covers. My best hope is that whoever’s in charge then has figured out something better than what we have today. Nobody wants to be on record as resisting progress. Right?

A palpable fear, though, underlying our anxiety about over-prizing and undervaluing our present is that in this high-velocity atmosphere we’ll suffer vital qualities of our character to become obsolete: our capacity to deliberate, to be patient, to forgive, to remain, to observe, to empathize, to gauge cause and effect, to ignore death in respect for life; in sum, to recognize good in all its complicated, unexpected forms. We fear we’ll have no use for these qualities in a world where fully functioning citizenship seems chiefly to require access to the Internet.

People who know a lot about technology would like to console us with their faith that it’s neutral, that tools won’t change human nature. But how do they know? And what if they’re wrong? Or right? What is human nature, anyway, and why do we think it’s so well settled in us that we can’t louse it up by taking it for granted? Can you clone it, too? Are you sure?

Put simply, the pace of life feels morally dangerous to me. And what I wish for is not to stop or even to slow it, but to be able to experience my lived days as valuable days. We all just want to keep our heads above the waves, find someplace to stand. If anything, that’s our human nature.

Me, I’ll admit it. I don’t have E-mail. I’m not on the Internet. I don’t have a cell phone or call waiting or even a beeper. And I’m not proud of it, since my fear, I guess, is that if someone wants to find me using all or any of these means, but can’t find me, whoever’s looking will just conclude that for technical reasons I don’t exist anymore.

Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

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