If asked, I would have to own up to being a fairly opinionated person. And I am perfectly aware how fortunate I am that writing here and in my books about the patterns and oddities of human behaviour gives me a forum not just to express my opinions but, better still, to try them out and constantly review them.
Being a naturally curious person, always with plenty to say, was far more difficult for me as a child than it is now. Finding your own voice, formulating opinions and then testing them, is crucial for people of all ages but is particularly essential for young people emerging into adulthood. In the far less permissive days of my adolescence, offering any original opinions was largely disallowed, particularly at school. Students were not so much encouraged to be silent as to express opinions that were echoes and regurgitations of what others thought and taught. Any opinion that differed was simply wrong.
As I’ve grown older I have increasingly valued the complex processes involved in sorting out what we think. Our moral intelligence depends on this. But I personally feel far less attached to most of my own opinions than I once did. This doesn’t mean that I care any less, but I am certainly less driven to try to persuade others to share my point of view. Nevertheless, even now there are a few areas of human and especially ethical behaviour where I feel as compelled as I ever did to speak up, however uncomfortable or exposed it makes me feel.
Violent behaviour and “entertainment”, religious, gender and racial bigotry, petty cruelty, indifference to the fate of our planet and the most vulnerable are all areas where I find it impossible to be indifferent or silent. I have also been a committed pacifist throughout my adult life. In fact, while my political and religious affiliations have changed somewhat, my pacifism has been a constant. This is a more complex position than simply calling for an end to war. It questions violence as an acceptable solution to any personal, national or international problems. And it certainly questions violence as an acceptable or desired first resort.
It will come as no surprise that I also have a strong commitment to gender and racial justice. But it’s those pacifist views that have got me into far more trouble over the years, especially with people who believe violence is inevitable and defensible. In one instance, someone was so incensed by an opinion piece I wrote some years ago that he sent letters not simply objecting to my views but threatening violence.
The double irony of this will be obvious. First, that my opinions about peace, of all topics, should have so enraged him; second, that he – like many of us – was so strongly identified with his own opinions that he felt attacked and insulted by my different view and was driven to attack in return.
A grown-up view of our own opinions would see us shaking them out and auditing them on a fairly regular basis. Some of the opinions that we have had “forever” might no longer serve us well – or anyone else. Some of them might not be our own opinions at all but something we picked up from hyper-opinionated radio commentators, at the kitchen table in our childhood home or because it’s what “people like us” invariably think. For opinions to count they need to be owned – but not too fiercely.
It’s a truism that most people become more fixed and defensive in their opinions as they age. The older people I know who are most alive are also most lively in their opinions. They care a lot. They think a lot. And they aren’t afraid to be challenged or even change their minds.