I’m sure it’s happened to you before. You meet up with a friend or family member and you get asked about the latest hot-button issue being chattered about incessantly on cable news or the latest outrageous event that has captured the attention of people scrolling through Twitter or Facebook feeds. The question inevitably comes, either in the form of “Can you believe this?” or the more open-ended “What do you think about it?”
If you’re not familiar with the day’s controversy, you may feel awkward for a moment. You don’t know what they’re talking about, and if you admit your ignorance, your friend may raise an eyebrow, see you as totally out of the loop and even think you’re a little crazy for not paying closer attention. Never fear! If you’re not up to speed on the news, they will fill you in so you can get as worked up about the issue as they are.
Social Pressure to Know the News and Express a View
There’s social pressure these days to choose a side and then express your opinion . . . on everything. The only thing more embarrassing than saying “I’m not aware” is saying, “I don’t know what I think.” After all, everyone knows what to think . . . about everything, right? Anyone can react to a headline on Facebook. Everyone is expected to have a well-formed opinion on whatever is trending on Twitter. To be unaware or, worse, undecided means you’re complicit in the big problems of the day.
What’s going on? Why has this social pressure to be aware of and have an opinion on everything grown stronger in recent years?
One reason is the central place that political battles and culture wars have in the American psyche. When one’s political orientation becomes a substitute religion, the world turns into a battle between believers and heretics. Everything becomes a fight-to-the-death battle.
Adding fuel to the fire is the inculcation of the “Us vs. Them” mentality that Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff name as one of the great Untruths threatening our society.
Furthermore, we’ve fallen prey to the politics of disdain, where the animating forces of our civil discourse are not our principles (what we believe) but our disdain and despising of the other side (who we hate).
Then there’s social media, which keeps us online, connected, and up-to-date on the latest outrage. Twitter and Facebook introduce us to stories and videos that—because we think we see everything clearly—make us feel confident in the judgments and denunciations we make. Convinced of our rightness, we feel a surge of adrenalin when we confidently make pronouncements online, joining our voice to the increasing clamor.
The social pressure, then, is to spout off whatever we think or feel in the moment. The online response often makes us feel affirmed in that opinion, whether it’s because we get savaged by people who oppose us (and we play the role of martyr) or because we get praised by people who agree (and we become the zealous soldier).
Wisdom and Humility
But knowing we live in a society enthralled by the spectacle—where public life, political causes, and civil debate are susceptible to widespread illusion, misinformation, and propaganda—means we should resist the pull to offer an opinion on everything.
Last year, I was struck by a comment Tim Keller made on a Christianity Today podcast. He was asked about a controversial subject—something he had considered from more than one angle—and he admitted he was less sure of his viewpoint than he had been at the beginning. Even more, he wasn’t sure he had to have a strong opinion. He recognized that having a strong opinion didn’t suddenly give him any power to affect the controversy anyway.
The way of wisdom means recognizing our limitations—both the limits on our knowledge and also the limits on our ability to affect change in the world. The way of wisdom frees us from having to have a well-formed opinion on every hot-button issue of the day. We can always say, no matter how surprising or unpopular, “I don’t know what I think about that.”
Perhaps this is one way that Christians can be salt and light, one way we can stand out in a world where everyone seems so certain (and usually angry) about whatever is going on. Maybe the admission of ignorance is one way we can offer grace and humility to a world drowning in its own ill-formed judgments.
In order to de-escalate tensions in our society and lower the temperature of our civil discourse, we can demonstrate the humility that says: “I haven’t really studied that issue,” or “I’m not an expert on the most important facts and considerations in that debate,” or “I don’t think I’ve weighed the different sides and looked into all the relevant points yet, and so I don’t have a strong opinion.”
Giving Space for Thought
The way of wisdom and humility leads us to admit our limitations. But we must not allow humility to become a cover for cowardice. It would be wrong to appeal to humility in order to avoid developing strong convictions. We should not use humility as an excuse to avoid taking stands on important issues, or as a way of excusing our apathy in coming to better and more-informed conclusions. No, we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves. That means our goal is not to be apolitical; political debates matter for the neighbors we are called to love.
My point is not that we shouldn’t have well-formed opinions, but that we need to open up space in society to say, “I don’t know yet enough to have a well-formed opinion.” We must also avoid the illusion that our opinions are well formed because we’ve read an article or two online.
Wisdom doesn’t mean withholding judgment forever, but it operates with a level of caution due to its understanding that our knowledge is limited. On some of the more contentious political debates of our day, where people with good intentions often disagree, we need to free people up to say, I don’t know what to think.