“Man’s most valuable trait is a judicious sense of what not to believe,” writes Euripides in his play, Alcestis.
Although the play was first performed in 438 BC, Euripides’s thought has held true for millennia. But one might also say that, today, this trait is even more than valuable, it’s a necessity in an age when people believe what they want to believe, regardless of facts. We’re less judicious than we are judgmental.
Why is it that we choose to give credit to something, even if we’re proved wrong? Why do we cling to certain long-held beliefs long after we should have let reality speak the truth to us? People are stubborn, certainly – who wants to change his mind? Who wants to give someone else the benefit of a doubt?
During conversations with friends we’ve all become used to checking facts on our smartphones, but during discourse and in public opinion, people on opposing sides carry on without regard for what’s true, because feeling has taken over from fact. Just try discussing politics with a family member – or better yet, don’t if you want to remain calm.
We’ve polarized ourselves into confrontation, believing what we believe and refusing to budge. It’s one thing to check the date of a book’s publication or who directed a certain film or the population of Mongolia, but it’s another entirely to insist that people are out to get you, just because you yourself are sure that you know they are (whether or not you have any facts at hand to support your generalized paranoia).
The rise of online trolling is in line with this insistence that no one else’s opinion matters, and that rather than choose, judiciously, not to believe, someone has been set aside in favor of attacking someone else (or being attacked by someone else) for believing anything at all that differs from somebody else’s opinion.
This is troubling – if you can’t express yourself an essential part of you is suppressed. It’s like living under a dictatorship of thought: believe this or suffer the penalty.
My colleagues and I represent authors who wish to broaden their audience, and who seek to engage with that audience by expressing themselves in a way that people can respond to. But we have seen that to speak your mind puts you at risk to a certain extent of being scorned. The thing is, you don’t need anyone’s permission to be yourself and to speak your mind. You don’t need approval: but it would be good to have civility. Finding and using your voice to express who you can lead to real breakthrough. But being told what to believe, or being told not to speak for fear of being scorned for that belief, is one of the great unfortunate events of our current era, when communication is instant but so is condemnation.[rps]