Meandering Thoughts about How to Encounter the World

One of the things about knowing the ultimate question is that you may ask it everywhere. And in asking it everywhere you run the risk of becoming an insolent grade-schooler new in the knowledge that they can ask the question “Why?” of anything. This gives rise to the risk that you use it to endlessly interrogate the world but never engage with it.

The phrase “strong opinions, weakly held” is just common enough that it entered my head when I thought of this situation. But I couldn’t comprehend it without some looking. In my looking, I came to understand the idea to mean that you should hold you’re opinions weakly because it allows you to find their flaws and drop them, but you should make them strong so that they’re interesting and worthy of discussion (and thus flaw-finding).

There’s a part of me that recoils from this idea. It seems like a magazine-cover personality: one week X is evil, next week Y’s the best thing ever, finally Z is found severely lacking but makes us aware that X is most excellent. It strikes me as more than a little schizophrenic.

People value some sense of consistency. Cries of hypocrisy come from a feeling that people who change opinions regularly can’t be trusted. And indeed someone telling me I’m still their friend while no other things they say seem internally consistent is, at best, worthy of doubt.

Those things said, it does seem true to my experience that tightly guarding your opinions — which is pretty much my default operational method — can drive people completely bananas. So if it’s true that strong opinions are necessary to interact with people productively, I can definitely support the idea of holding them weakly.

Nothing is worse than a strong opinion strongly held. Strong opinions strongly held are the reasons so many people are sanely turned off by discussions of politics and religion. When neither side is interested in a frank discussion of facts and opinions, the discourse almost necessarily degrades into an adversarial yelling match.

I’ve had an idea for an essay sitting around for a while: “Dancing with Disagreement”. The idea was exploring the “how” of the classic phrase “disagreeing without being disagreeable”. We know people can have opposing views about politics or religion but still like each other, spend time together, and get along well. But it’s very rarely seen in the culture.

It does seem to me that the secret to disagreeing well is, in some sense, “strong opinions weakly held”. If you view it as fundamentally and unmistakably true, for example, that man-made global warming is real and the most pressing issue facing the planet, you’re unlikely to be able to take seriously the idea that you should sit down and talk about your children with a man who believes that whole opinion is “so much liberal horsesh*t”. But hold that weakly, don’t let it derail a conversation, strive for a finding common interests, and you may just start to understand each other. And that may just be the best way to face the world.