Ted Gup on Facts, Truth & the Value of Not Having an Opinion

If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed.  It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed,” the sage Stoic philosopher and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius once wrote.  Nearly two millennia later, Charles Darwin, a naturalist whose formulation of the theory of evolution made him intimately familiar with the dangers preconceptions posed to truth, proclaimed: “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”  Unparalleled genius of physics Steven Hawking agreed.  Intelligence, he held, was not the firm, unyielding belief in one’s convictions but an openness, an inquisitiveness, an ability to “adapt to change.”

During our divisive political climate where parties are more polarized than they’ve been in 150 years and everyone seems to be certain of the correctness of their side of the debate, there’s sadly been a decline in our willingness to change.  Opinions are no longer open to reasoning or refutation or facts but have solidified into the intransigence of dogma and the fervor of party politics.  No longer are we open to listening to opposing points-of-view: when confronted with a fact that undermines our position or threatens our worldview, we question its legitimacy, accuse it of being “unreliable.”  A “fact” that contradicts our position is not a fact but a dubious piece of dis-info.  In an era when Oxford English dictionaries named “post-truth” word of the year, it seems objective facts matter less than maintaining our subjective beliefs.  But as Czech novelist Milan Kundera elucidates, an opinion is merely the “hypothesis we favor…imperfect, probably transitory, which only very limited minds can declare to be truth or certainty.”  Despite the frenzied zeal with which we defend them, our opinions, we forget, are just that- opinions, nothing more.

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For journalist Ted Gup, this is the greatest tragedy of our age.  Too many of us are so completely convinced of our opinions that we forget the nobler pursuit of truth.  Rather than act as scientists-make observations, propose hypotheses which we then test, and revise our conjectures as necessary- we become obsessed with defending our stance, only recognizing evidence that confirms what we already believe to be true.  

Featured in NPR’s This I Believe series, a treasure trove of earnest, heartfelt essays in which the exceptional and ordinary share their life philosophies, Gup’s witty “In Praise of the Wobblies” adopts a fresh take on the value of having an opinion or, more accurately, the value of not having one.  Though we tend to admire those with strong convictions, Gup observes impassioned opinion has the habit of mutating into zealotry, certainty into narrow-mindedness, and conclusive answers into a troubling lack of curiosity.  35 years ago when he was just a college kid interviewing for an internship at the Washington Post, Gup confesses he felt insecure about his inability to pledge allegiance to either side of the political debate:

For years I really didn’t know what I believed.  I always seemed to stand in the no-man’s-land between opposing arguments, yearning to be won over by one side or the other, but finding instead degrees of merit in both.  

I remember some thirty-five years ago, sitting at a table with the editor of The Washington Post and a half dozen Harvard kids.  We were all finalists for a Post internship, and the editor was there to winnow our numbers down.  He asked each of us what we thought about the hot issues of the day- Vietnam, Nixon, the demonstrations.  The Harvard kids were dazzling.  They knew exactly where they stood.  Me, I just stumbled on every issue, sounding so muddled.  I was sure I had forever lost my shot at the Post.  Why, I wondered, could I not see as closely as those around me?”  

When a month later he received a rejection letter from the editor explaining he was too young for the internship but that he “hunched” one hell of a future ahead of him, Gup recognized that- unlike those who knew exactly what they thought and were often blinded by their own preconceptions and biases- he, for the very reason that he did not possess a staunch opinion, was more open-minded and able to apprehend reality:

“But that first letter…had already given me an invaluable license.  It had let me know that it was okay to be perplexed, to be torn by the issues, to look at the world and not feel inadequate because it would not sort itself out cleanly.  In the company of the confident, I had always envied their certainty.  I imagined myself a tiny sailboat, aimlessly tacking in whatever wind prevailed at the moment.  

But in time, I came to accept, even embrace, what I called my “confusion,” and to recognize it as a friend and ally, no apologies needed, I preferred to listen rather than to speak; to inquire, not crusade.  As a non-combatant, I was welcomed at the tables of bitterly divided foes

An editor and mentor at the Post once told me I was “wobbly.”  I asked who else was in that category and drew comfort from its quirky ranks.  They were good people all- open-minded, inquisitive, and, yes, confused.  We shared a common creed.  Our articles of faith all ended in a question mark.  I wouldn’t want a whole newsroom, hospital, platoon, or-God forbid-a nation of us.  But in periods of crisis, when passions are high and certainty runs rabid, it’s good to have a few of us on hand.  In such times, I believe it falls to us Wobblies to try and hold the shrinking common ground.”

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