The Opinion Pageant
The pressure to have an opinion is creating a fake society
Before we all became mesmerised by the internet, humans spent much of their time in a little place called the real world. Here, people tended to interact with each other in the flesh, and as such, one could get a good sense of a person's character by observing their behaviour.
This all changed with the rise of social media. The transition from a world in which people interact in person to one in which they interact through text led to a shift in the way we define and judge people. With little visibility of a person's deeds, we had to focus on their words. And so we began to define people primarily by their opinions.
Since opinions are now our main way to express ourselves and impress others, there’s a new pressure to always have a point of view. If you don't have a perspective on the thing everyone else is talking about, you basically don't exist. The result is that people feel compelled to take a stance on everything.
The problem is, people don't have the time or skill to adequately research every stance they're prompted into taking. And so they're forced to cut corners.
Research suggests that when humans are pressured to have an opinion on an issue they know little about, they’ll often just hastily make one up, ad-libbing without regard to facts or logic, rather than admitting they don’t know. To compound the problem, people dislike changing their opinions (as it requires admitting they were wrong), so their impromptu views, which they cobbled together from whim and half-remembered hearsay, will often become their new hills to die on.
Essentially, the pressure to have an opinion in the digital age can cause people to resort to believing, or professing to believe, babble.
But it gets worse.
Since people are now defined chiefly by their opinions, there’s not just pressure to have an opinion, there’s pressure to have the best opinion—the smartest, most sophisticated, most high-status. Digital society has become a beauty contest for beliefs, an opinion pageant.
Clearly, if people are simply improvising their opinions, they're not going to have good opinions, let alone the best ones. So people will often employ a different strategy: copying the opinions of others.
They typically do this by outsourcing their thinking to professional commentators, who offer prepackaged "designer opinions" that people can wear like haute couture to become the envy of their friends.
An entire industry has developed over the need for these high-fashion opinions. Since elite media like the New York Times lost their monopoly on news, they've pivoted into selling hot takes for you to appropriate to make yourself look savvy and sophisticated. The New York Times is now less a newspaper than a manual for wannabe New York elites to opine like genuine New York elites.
Of course, if you don't like what the Times is selling, there are countless other outlets and influencers for you to take your opinions from. Heck, I suppose I'm one of them.
However, just because a commentator is offering their opinions for sale, doesn't mean their opinions are good. On the contrary, opinion-sellers often sell poorly considered opinions, because not only are they under the same pressure as everyone else to take stances on issues they know little about, but they must do so quickly. For a professional commentator, being the first one to think of a take is everything. As such, opinion-sellers will often rush their opinions out, and then, since they can't change their view without looking bad, they’re forced to stick with it.
A recent example is Elon Musk buying Twitter. When the story broke, everyone raced to offer their opinion on it. Their speculations rested on speculations, which rested on speculations, because there was little of substance to actually discuss. Elon had made a bid and said a few words, but no other concrete details were available. Nevertheless, since it was a big story, an opinion was expected, so people just babbled.
Fortunately for opinion-sellers, they excel at sounding informed (it's their whole job), and they'll even take the time to misuse facts and statistics to support their thrown-together takes, so their bad opinions nevertheless become fashionable.
Opinion-sellers make life easier for themselves and their customers by selling not just isolated opinions, but “opinion packages”. These are simplistic worldviews from which a set of consistent opinions on almost anything can be easily computed, equipping the bearer to opine on virtually any matter that comes up in conversation.
Arguably the most fashionable opinion package in the West today is what some refer to as "wokeness". This is a kind of conspiracy theory that uses a lexicon of dubious concepts, such as “white fragility” and “toxic masculinity”, to portray Western society as “systemically” racist, misogynistic, and transphobic, and to scapegoat such problems on white people generally, and on straight white men specifically.
For example, when Will Smith slapped Chris Rock at the Oscars, people scrambled for opinions on what it all meant. The Guardian quickly served up a neat, simple, woke take for its customers: white people outraged by the slap were just racists.
Woke opinions are popular for several reasons. For a start, they lift a great burden from the brain; there’s no need to understand a complex world if you can just blame everything on bigotry. But arguably the most important advantage of woke opinions is their success in the opinion pageant. They’re an effective way to improve one’s social standing, because constantly calling out bigotry makes one look unbigoted, compassionate, and socially aware—all values with high social capital.
The social capital offered by wokeness makes it an indispensable opinion package in image-oriented industries like media, academia, Hollywood, and public relations, which may be why wokeness is most dominant in these spheres.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that everyone who is woke is only in it for the image. It's likely that many people adopt designer opinions because they're genuinely convinced by them (like I said, opinion-sellers are good at appearing informed).
But the trouble with opinions is that one cannot know for sure whether or not they're sincerely held, which leads to another problem of the opinion pageant: fraud. Just as designer clothes can be counterfeited, so can designer opinions. Except opinions cost nothing to fake.
Ersatz beliefs are now common in the business world. Savvy corporations have realised that in the opinion pageant, they must take a political stance to secure relevance, and since wokeness is the most high status suite of opinions, they almost exclusively subscribe to that package.
An example would be Nike. On social media, it often expresses outrage about, say, police killings of black people in the US, and it famously recruited social justice activist Colin Kaepernick to be its marketing face. But while it loudly condemns US human rights abuses, it says precious little about the far more widespread human rights abuses in China, where it secretly benefits from forced labour.
Wokeness offers corporations, celebrities, and other status-conscious entities the most prestigious package of views in the opinion pageant, but it's increasingly having to contend with competitors. Perhaps the most notable of these is the "based" worldview. This opinion package is often sold by conservatives, but it's less defined by what it’s for than what it's against. And what it's against is the reigning champion of the pageant, wokeness.
To this end, based opinions tend to flout social regulations presumed to be sanctimonious and performative, such as enforced pronoun usage, and are often calculated to outrage the woke, or "trigger the libs", in order to expose their supposed hypocrisy and mental instability. The main values that based opinions seek to signal are unpretentiousness, individualism, and “not giving a fuck”.
The division of people into based, woke, and other competing worldviews has had an unfortunate side effect. It’s created a culture war between the various customer bases, a war that’s phony because most of the combatants are fighting for beliefs they haven't properly considered, since they idly plagiarised them instead of concluding them through careful reasoning.
But the worst thing about the culture war is that it perpetuates the opinion pageant. When people become divided into factions, there becomes even more pressure to pick a side and have an opinion, or else one risks being known as a fence-sitter, a coward, or even worse, an enemy (“silence is violence!”, say the woke). The result is that even more people take a stance on issues they know little about.
And what does this do to our discourse, when so many people are forced to fight for opinions they don't understand, or do understand but don't really hold? Social media feeds become filled with lies and bad arguments, polluting the public well of information, and turning the arena of ideas into a scrapyard of knock-off notions and second-hand sentiments.
The end result of the opinion pageant is a fraudulent world, a world where most people's opinions are not their own. It’s a world of puppets being ventriloquised by strangers—strangers who are likely themselves puppets. In such a world, where words matter more than deeds, and opinions matter more than character, being “smart” requires no gift for thought, only a gift for mimicry, and being “good” requires no heart of gold, only a silver tongue & brazen nature.
So how do we end this demented masquerade?
Unfortunately, we don't, because we can't make it socially acceptable to not have an opinion. But what we can do is ensure that we don't participate in the pageant and have our brains turned to mush and our hearts turned to plastic. All we have to do is remember that we're under no obligation to have an opinion, or to expect one of others. Silence doesn't make someone ignorant; it often just makes them sincere.
In the end, opinions are a hopeless way to define people, because, like designer clothing, they're both faddish and easily counterfeited. If you want to know someone’s true nature, look beyond their words, and scrutinise the one aspect of their character that's costly to fake—their actions.
And that's it. That's my article. What do you think of my opinion? It's a pretty good opinion, isn't it? Maybe even one of the best. Right?
An opinion should be the result of thought, not a substitute for it.
Great article. It made me think of a quote from Red Green, ca. 2000: "We haven't really improved communication - we've just made it easier for bad ideas to be shared. Before the techno revolution, if you had a theory, you presented it to a friend or a colleague first to see if it had merit. You could limit the embarrassment. Now, if you have a theory, you create a Web site and broadcast it to the world. Life gets very difficult when everybody knows you're an idiot. It's bad enough when it's just your wife."