I wrote this days ago, and then just sat on it, because, an opinion piece about why opinion is inherently an insufficient projection upon reality is self-cancelling. On second thought, that was the point.
Reality is boundless and unfathomable, hence any opinions, beliefs, and conclusions about it are mere projections upon it, something to tether ourselves to. People who have all the answers are like snake oil salesmen who use their own product. Here I examined some of the problems I’m having with opinions, very much including my own.
Yes, this rant is inescapably opinion about why opinion is dangerous. At least it’s self-aware dangerous opinion.
People who follow my blog may have noticed I’ve been publishing less articles recently. It’s not just because I’m more focused on making art, and using my time wisely, or that I moved across the country I live in: it’s also because I’m starting to find opinion not worthless, but overrated and less worthwhile than things done, including art.
Opinion is the mind’s attempt to ascertain reality and project into the future. I need to have some idea what’s going to happen not only to plan anything, but to not freak out. I gotta know where I’m living and know there’s gonna’ be food and I’m going to be able to survive doing X and Y. I have to be able to imagine what will happen tomorrow, or at least in what environment it will happen. Beyond that I must harbor theories about how things work, make predictions, and have some sort of confidence in my interpretation of reality in order to function with any stability.
Opinion is essential to survival, but it’s also a battlefield for power and supremacy. Our models for the future work better if other people believe the same thing, are on the same page, and playing the same game. One man or woman’s ideas go nowhere if nobody else believes them or values them. Thus, we have a vested interest in promulgating our opinions, which are quite likely the ones which benefit us personally, and not others.
We see solid opinions crumbling all around us. It was the NYTimes ‘near 100% confident conclusions that Hillary Clinton would win the 2016 election. It was also the Associated Press’s near 100% conclusion that the super-delegates would unanimously vote for Hillary that lost the primary for Bernie Sanders. In hind-sight, some of those super-delegates might have voted for Trump, or Bernie proper, but just weren’t saying so (as with a large swath of the population) in which case Sanders would not have been out of the running a day before the elections in California.
My favorite example of opinion failing is the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship). There were a few years there where the winners of the matches would predictably, in the post fight interview in the ring, thank their corner, their family, God, and Jesus. This was probably at a time when Christianity was at an all time low for public acceptance as the most true and effective paradigm. …Except when it came to extreme fighting.
Incidentally, this is a good example of what the now infamous Jordan Peterson means when he refuses to deny Christianity. For him, as a clinical psychiatrist, who treated myriad patients, what is important is not necessarily what’s factual, but what works to help people succeed. It’s the same, I think, with AA. Perhaps having faith that you will succeed, and are aided by a higher power, works, whether or not it’s really true, or at least works better than constantly doubting yourself. What is more valid, what works, or what is factually true?
Also in the UFC, kung-fu has been a sad disappointment. Probably the most aesthetically beautiful of the martial arts, and in other ways the most appealing — think Kwai Chang Caine — it can’t really compete with “ground and pound”.
The dirty and ugly techniques triumph over the most acrobatic and technical. This is not to say there isn’t technique in grappling — a medium-sized jujitsu fighter can take down a giant body-builder — but our vision of the Karate Kid or Bruce Lee being the ultimate champion are shattered. One must have the physique to fight in the higher weight classes. While Bruce could take on several lumbering brutes, a trained UFC fighter double his weight might end up on top of him, pounding his face into the canvas. What has eventually triumphed in the ring of mixed martial arts is no-bullshit, multi-disciplinary, brutal fighting techniques, and hard work. If the spiritual element is there, beyond faith and incentive, it’s not readily apparent.
The lesson I take away from that is the value of hard work and the necessity of discarding ones pre-existing cherished beliefs and opinions if they aren’t working. But outside of the crucible of the ring, opinions are not tested so rigorously.
In the art world the most ridiculous theories and conclusions, which are all merely opinions, are allowed to reign untroubled by reality checks fighters in the ring are dished out with kicks to the head or being choked out.
Joe Rogan touted Ronda Rousey as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world shortly before her match against Holly Holm. People speculated about whether or not she could defeat male opponents, and even ones in higher weight classes. Ronda is a great fighter, but not as great as the legend surrounding her, and so a reputation that would last a century in the art world was crushed with one stunning kick to the head, in a split second.
All it takes for an over-inflated art career to sail on without challenge is for enough people to buy into it. Doesn’t matter if it’s crap, or if we can’t be sure someone like Martin Creed isn’t LARPing the art world. As I like to say, it is worth noting that what is considered the pinnacle of artistic achievement in “visual art” is also, quite frequently, nearly indistinguishable from complete inanity.
Whether or not a crumpled piece of paper on a pedestal is stunningly brilliant art, or derivative and stupid, is a matter of opinion only. One would have more hesitation stepping into the ring with a paper sword and mock voodoo chants.
I have a lot of problems with other people’s opinions, but I don’t stop there. I’m not comfortable with my own opinions. They are always best guesses. A lot of things I have strong opinions on are second-hand or third-hand knowledge at best. If our opinions were as accurate as we think, we’d be much better at predicting the future. A week ago I moved to a city I never imagined I’d live in, and I can’t tell you where I’ll be in 2-3 years.
This can go good or bad. Once when I was around 19 years old I went to UCLA with my brother so he could get something from the library, or some other task. At the time I wasn’t going to school at all. He was going to an architecture school. Well, walking around that campus I was really impressed by how nice it was, and envied the luck of the students who studied there. I couldn’t imagine ever being that lucky. Fast forward a few years, and, after going through community colleges and abandoning a smaller university, I ended up studying art there.
I can’t tell you anything about where I’ll be in five years, and definitely not in ten. I have no idea if I’ll ever get any recognition as an artist, but I persist out of a kind of need, and not requiring much to begin with. The point of all this is the insufficiency of opinion as reflected in my inability to predict even my own future in the short term.
If I want to be open to evolving my grasp of reality, I also have to be ready to disavow whatever I’ve thought in the past. And there’s this bizarre social phenomenon now where people will hold you to something you believed in the past and seek to punish you for it. How can you attain a greater perspective if you don’t do so from a lesser perspective, in which case you must have operated from a lesser perspective. We are all born perfectly ignorant, so how could it be otherwise than that people gradually, if inclined, become less ignorant?
When I was in junior high a sociology (I think) teacher asked us to write about what to do with criminals. My brilliant suggestion was torture! Woo-hoo! I thought it would be a disincentive to crime, obviously. And that is just a horrendous position. With maturity, and especially after reading Capote’s “In Cold Blood”, I moved far into the rehabilitation direction.
As I teen I knew precious little about crime, the criminal justice system, history, economics, or much of anything really, other than my own personal story. If I were to live long enough, I might find myself saying that about my 40s, 50s, 90’s, or first century.
It’s amazing, when one comes to question the very nature of opinion, that so many are so confident about their own opinions, mostly in the form of received conclusions. The thing I’m probably the biggest authority on is art, so I will come back to it a lot.
In the art world there was a little thing called “Theory” that we were given in grad school. It was often coupled with “Critical”, which made it even more imposing. A quarter century looking back, and now it seems to me that “outrageous, angry hypothesis” would have also worked as a title. “Theory” is untested conjecture. We’re not talking about the theory of relativity, but more like people shooting from the hip about other people and society.
We treated these wild hypotheses reverently, like they were sacred texts. In middle age, when I’ve gone back and examined these same seminal texts, they struggle to rise above pretentious gobbledygook. What’s happened is I’ve reached the age, and then some, of the authors. It’s like when you are a kid, and adults appear to have so much more authority and knowledge, but when you are an adult yourself, it’s nothing. I sometimes wonder what it would be like to know people who were adults when I was a kid, now that I’m an adult. Elementary school teachers that seemed old to me would now be young in comparison, irresponsible, goofy, with crappy teaching methodology.
And so it is with the critical theorists we studied. Now they are just my contemporaries mouthing off about other people over coffee. Sure, some of them were brilliant (others less so), and did tons of research, but they had their own limitations, biases, proclivities, phobias, flat spots, and other imperfections galore. People are only really great until you get to know them. After that they are just another expression of humanness. The girls who screamed in hysterics at the mere sight of a Beatle would have grown bored with whichever of them if they’d ended up dating. People are people.
I’m amused that so many people think someone is royalty. Speaking of the Beatles, I think it was John who had an interesting observation about fame. He was struck by how differently people treated him after he became famous, and appeared on the “teli”. Being on TV conferred a kind of unattainable immortality to one, a kind of status which elevated you in other people’s eyes but didn’t change who you were when you were busy on the crapper.
I’m writing now because I feel like it. I see it almost like a spider building its web. You attempt to formulate some sort of net in which you can capture reality, or a few of its feathers.
The danger of opinions, theories, conclusions, and the like is that people mistake them for reality itself, and act on them, physically, in real time, with bloody effect. The person most likely to kill another is the one who firmly believes some ridiculous conclusion is unalloyed reality. You are not going to kill, or persecute someone who merely had a difference of opinion unless you think your own opinions are sacrosanct. And oh how solemnly people take their handed-down, bullet-point-worthy rhetoric.
I think it’s smart to be humble about anything that happened before we were born. I was born in 65, and, this may be delusion, but I feel like I have some first hand knowledge of the zeitgeist of the latter sixties, and definitely of the 70’s, whereas I’m clueless about the 50’s.
I’ve also lived in SE Asia for more than the last decade, so am rather tone-deaf about the same time period in America. But I do know what it’s like, on the ground, in China, Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia in that same time frame, which is NOT the same thing as in the West.
Allow me to present a snippet of evidence. I saw this in a mall in Thailand several days ago:
This kiddy-ride is of apparently zero interest here. Not only is it not controversial, it’s just nothing. It might as well be Sponge Bob, Doraemon, an elephant, a shark, the Little Mermaid, or whatever. When I encountered it, I was more like, “Whoa Nelly, somebody didn’t get the memo!” I mean, surely this is some serious racist shit. But things just don’t mean the same thing out here.
You will also see people wearing helmets on their motorcycles that aren’t exactly motorcycle helmets. Apparently Nazi regalia works well enough. After the first dozen or so sightings of motorcyclists wearing Nazi helmets, one just shrugs ones shoulders.
I once dated a Thai here who was well educated and had excellent English — she was an English teacher, matter of fact — and one fine day she showed up with a prominent gold cross on her necklace. “But you’re Buddhist,” I stated.
“That is THE symbol of Christianity!”
“Not here. It’s doesn’t mean anything. I just like it.”
Quite curiously, you can be in a thriving civilization where a racist sculpture of a black man, a Nazi helmet, and a Christian cross mean nothing!
What I was getting at with having a sense of an era, decade, or period, is that it’s difficult to think that someone who was born, say, in this century, can know what it meant to live through the 70’s. Add that the person in question was born in, say, China, and it’s quite a stretch to think he or she could really know much about the 70’s in America at all.
Nevertheless, many people now have fast and easy, condemnatory opinions about people who lived long before they were born, in all-enveloping circumstances they can’t begin to fathom. Thus we judge people in the distant past by this year’s fashionable beliefs. And people in the future will be laughing at the stuff we believe now.
Having grown up in the 70’s, I’m quite fond of what I call “retro-future”. The bright, shining example of that is the original USS Enterprise. None of the updated versions of it ever beat the original.
One of the things that’s so appealing about the original ship is that it’s a product of its time. Here you have a ship that can travel at light speed, but the computers don’t even have anything as sophisticated as Windows, or DOS. They just have colored lights and buttons. When envisioning the future of our civilization, we didn’t even imagine personal computers, or smart phones.
When I grew up in the 70’s nobody I heard of had a computer, and my grandfather worked for IBM. At least I think he did. I don’t know if I can trust that memory. I didn’t have my own computer until after I got an MFA. Now, my 12 year-old English students come to class with smart phones, in the so-called “developing world”.
People roughly my age have the unique perspective of having one foot in the digital world, and the other in the analogue. I suddenly find myself having grown up in what are by today’s standards nearly barbaric conditions. My technological entertainment system, in high school, consisted of a B&W TV, a record player, and an FM radio/cassette player.
Related to all this, I’ve also been thinking that everyone is a little insane, but I’ll save that for another rant. I also have a bit of death anxiety, though, curiously, I’ve always had a tad of that.
When I was growing up there were a lot of news stories about serial killers. I think the hill-side strangler was big news, and I’d see commercials during “Bewitched” about it that would scare me. Thus I used to sleep with an aluminum baseball bat so that if a serial killer came through my bedroom window I could fight him. I never told anyone about this at the time, and I think it went on for well over a year. Not a comfortable thing to sleep with.
Later, I saw a movie on TV about an athlete who got testicular cancer. I checked myself out, and became quite worried that I had the same thing, not knowing that there’s stuff in the man-sack besides just the crown jewels. So, for quite a while, until I finally researched the topic, I thought I was going to die of testicular cancer. I regularly worried about death in my teens.
Now, I’m 53, and I’m constantly surprised that I’m THAT old. Something could go awry any time now. I’m certainly too old to start an art career, not that that’s stopping me. Also, my biological father died at 52, of various cancers, including the pancreas. It may have had a lot to do with his job in a water purification company, working with chlorine vapor. I’ve outlived him. And here’s another person who I only knew as much older than me, though now he is eternally younger.
At this juncture, more and more, I think opinions mean squat, and it is the thing done that really matters. I feel like I have a bit of a race against time. Maybe I’ll be around in 2 or 3 decades and think it was as ridiculous for me to be thinking about death in my 50’s as it was for me to sleep with a baseball bat when I was in elementary school.
But even if I live to a ripe old age, what is my peak period to be making art?
And that, good readers, is why I’m doing less writing, and more hard work on art. Opinions about art, and art that relies on favorable opinion to have worth, are so much fluff.
I have another insight days back, as relates to being an artist, and hard work. I concluded that I deserve nothing, and am entitled to nothing. Everything worthwhile is hard-earned, and is its own reward.
And that’s my current opinion.
Now, back to work.