My laptop is placed perfectly on the desk in front of me, with a notebook and pen sitting neatly by its side and a cup of coffee in the corner. The PDF of my reading is colorfully marked with my personal arsenal of (self-deemed) riveting comments and questions. Each class discussion is a draining battle, and today, I’m ready for war. I carefully follow the progression of the conversation and enjoy what’s being said, but can never let my guard down, as I need to find ways to wedge the facts and notes I collected from the night before into the discussion.
Yet somehow—in comparison to my peers’ skillful and coordinated series of attacks—my contributions seem like blunt, crude beatings, short in duration and infrequent in number. And as that difference becomes increasingly prominent, I shrink perpetually deeper into my prison of silence, restless to speak but unable to do so.
A similar phenomenon occasionally transpires in more casual settings. I enjoy pleasantly stimulating political discussion until someone, usually confident and well informed, asks for my personal opinion. This observation begins to unpack the fear I have of participating in class discussions or intellectual conversation in general. They’re often based on opinions—whether it’s sharing your opinion, understanding someone else’s, or some variation of the two—and I’m terrified of even having one, particularly in the face of perceived superiority.
For me, having an opinion on something is tantamount to possessing extensive knowledge on that subject. Opinions are a result of vested interest over a long period of time, complete with analysis of underlying generalities and insightful comparisons to other current events. Any thought I may have is consistently overshadowed by the ever-present principle that there is still so much that I do not understand.
Take a hypothetical situation in which I read an article about the President’s decision on Syria. Maybe the article triggers some microscopic shadow of a reaction, but that small thought doesn’t stand a chance against the army of questions that are prepared to destroy it. “Do you know the full historical context of U.S.-Syrian relations?” “Are you an expert in political strategy?” “Did you consider that there might be x, y, and z factors that also come into play? What do you know about those?” Backed into a corner, I choose the easiest way out: surrender. The undeniable knowledge that my opinion could be wrong strictly prohibits me from claiming any sort of subjective belief as my own.
I resort instead to hoarding CNN news clips and collecting witty comments from the Colbert Report to store away in my tent, camped on neutral ground. At least there I can peacefully craft my storage of information into little puppets and play director in my up-and-(never-really)-coming show, Both Sides Have Equally Valid Arguments. At least by doing this, I justify to myself, I’m not making an uneducated judgment, and I’m not oversimplifying a complex issue. I’m not some “ignorant protestor,” and I’m not an “extremist politician” too stubborn to compromise. I would never dare be arrogant enough to think that I am omnipotent and infallible. My intellectual conscience can remain clean.
Such a thought process, however, implies that the purpose of forming opinions is to be right. Ultimately, I choose to remain neutral because I know that someone intellectually superior to me can prove me wrong—and I don’t like being wrong.
I tried to appease my fear of participating in class discussions by reading the assigned articles more intensively and doing background research on authors. As the quarter progressed, I did feel slightly more comfortable handling the material, but my classmates only seemed to be getting exponentially more intelligent. In the beginning of the quarter, class discussions were something I struggled to keep up with; entering into fifth and sixth week, I didn’t even know what I was supposed to be chasing after. All of my efforts seemed futile, and I felt utterly lost.
I slowly realized that I had confused the importance of being informed with a necessity to be infallible. Picking a side does not have to mean I assume I am never wrong, because the opposite of a stubborn reluctance to admit mistakes is not passivity. Passivity is a preventative measure to ensure that one is never wrong. The two are not opposing forces; they are allies fighting under one misguided leader: pride.
After this realization, I approached discussions not as a means to impress others, but as a mechanism through which I could learn and gain a wider perspective. The goal of having opinions was no longer to stand perfectly unchallenged, but rather to be corrected.
A truly informed opinion is created to be broken apart, and in this process facilitate growth. The best opinions do not fear defeat but seek after criticism. They are neither impervious to differences nor do they falter at the slightest touch.
An opinion is like the ultimate personal tutor. It teaches you to put your heart into and love what you learn, but also that you’re supposed to be wrong sometimes, because that’s how you grow.
All of that without an hourly rate of $50. A pretty good deal, in my opinion.
Grace Koh is a second-year in the College majoring in political science.