There will be no “your opinion matters” this time. Chances are, it doesn’t matter that much.
Something else is more important these days.
There will be no “let your voice be heard” in this article. In the times when we argue about topics we are barely familiar with, what matters is… no opinion.
Once upon a time, you and I learned that developing our own opinions and defending them in a discussion was essential. Otherwise, we would get lost in the speculations of others and risk becoming victims of their worldview — without ever having a chance to stand our own ground.
Maybe you heard that from your Mum or Dad, or maybe from your teacher. Don’t listen to what they say; think for yourself. This was, of course, a well-intended piece of advice, an encouragement to work your own mind. But over time, it made you and I believe that we need to hold our own original theory about every single thing in the world.
More than that: we need to be able to produce arguments and defend our viewpoints. Prove other people wrong. Show them that we know better.
I want to confess something to you. I sometimes entertain myself with the fantasy of having no opinion on any matter whatsoever. I know, this sounds as unattainable as it is impractical; but can you imagine this state of mind for a moment?
Imagine that you can ask questions instead of giving one-size-fits-all answers. That you can openly say I don’t know to people around you. That you can finally throw away the fear of not being smart enough.
There would be no fixed political views. No ideology. No distinction of good and bad. No opinion on what is healthy to eat. No definite say on the right approach to raising kids.
But what use is there in having no opinion — in being colourless — you ask me? The short answer is that the world often needs you to have no opinion. We all need you to be able to say: I don’t know.
And here is the longer answer.
The two possible reasons to enter a discussion
Not having a strong opinion can be liberating. It is akin to the state of mind of a child.
A child is not afraid to say “I don’t know” — nor is she embarrassed to ask questions. It is the beginner’s mind that the child adopts, that allows her to see things exactly as they are. She is open to receive any answer or outcome of an experiment. And she is also able to accept it — at least until she finds something that contests that initial piece of knowledge.
How often do you enter a discussion just to impose your view on the others? How often do you make yourself immune to what others are saying? Can you remember a recent conversation in which your only goal was to defend your point?
We usually participate in a discussion for one of the two main reasons.
The first one is to prove a point to our companions. We want to make them change their minds and believe our truth. With this motivation in mind, we don’t really listen to what the other person has to say. We are too busy defending our opinion. It becomes a matter of winning or losing; and of course, we want to win.
The second possible reason to enter a conversation is to find out as much as possible about the discussed matter. With this mindset, we base our intention on curiosity, rather than the need to defend our views. We care about learning, rather than maintaining our viewpoint.
Having no opinion on a topic — and openly admitting it — helps us participate in conversations for the second reason, rather than the first.
When we defend ourselves — not our opinions
Some time ago I attended a public discussion about whether or not the government should be cutting the primaeval Białowieża Forest in eastern Poland. I got there with my parents and a couple of friends.
We all went there with an opinion that the Forest should not be touched — simply because it is an extraordinary and precious natural site. I wholeheartedly shared that opinion.
However, I didn’t have enough information to participate in what I was expecting to be a constructive, fact-based discussion. I planned to take advantage of that and place myself in a position of an observer — detached from my opinions and ready to learn from the discussion.
That didn’t go exactly as planned. Neither was I able to let go of my viewpoint nor was the discussion constructive and fact-based. Far from it. But both things were caused by the same phenomenon, which I had a chance to observe throughout the meeting:
People habitually identify themselves with their opinions.
When that happens, there is no wonder why we cling to these opinions so much — and why we want to defend them so desperately. Because what we are actually doing is defending our own sense of identity.
The discussion about the Forest started with five expert panellists speaking from the stage. One by one, they shared their expertise and viewpoint on cutting down the trees. Then they opened the floor for questions from the audience.
Guess what? Nobody wanted to ask questions.
Everyone thought they already knew everything that they needed to know. Their only intention in participating in the discussion was to prove their point to everyone around.
I started judging people very fast and became particularly hung up on the observation that most people came with their cliques — groups that supported them in defending their opinion. For example, there was a clique that didn’t see a problem in cutting down part of the forest. They acted particularly loud and disrespectfully, shouting over others and supporting each other’s beliefs all the time.
They cooperated in defending their common standpoint. They confined themselves within their own“club”, so it was easier to counterattack and win the battle. I observed how maintaining their current beliefs bonded them as a group — and how maintaining that group’s “opinion consensus” was obviously way more important than discussing the facts.
Then, my Mum got up to say something.
Immediately, I sensed her anxiety to speak in public and felt an urge to protect her, whatever she was going to say. I didn’t care about the subject matter of the discussion anymore. I just wanted her to be recognised as right.
And so I suddenly realised that I came to the meeting with my own clique — and with an attachment to my ideas of what was right and wrong. I was there with my tribe — the people I knew, sat next to, and shared common views with. And to maintain the sense of safety, it felt necessary that we protect each other.
I understood that we were all in this together. Each one attached to their cliques, opinions and the feeling of belonging that arose from them. We were all hoping to express our views — and prove that we are right. That is: that we are worthy.
It was not the matter of the Białowieża Forest anymore. I saw everyone simply wanting to be acknowledged and heard — which was so understandable that I couldn’t dismiss it.
The importance of having no opinion
After attending the discussion, I could only conclude that letting go of defending our viewpoints is not easy. For some reason, we instinctively identify ourselves with the things we believe in. We identify ourselves with the people who believe the same things we do.
When we justify our political views, religion, ideological choices — it feels like we are fighting for survival. We are looking for our raison d’être. Our reasons to be as we are.
It is understandable. But it is also a major obstacle to working out a consensus.
In the presence of the problems we are facing right now as a species — such as environmental crisis, inequality, spreading populism and so on — it is important that we try to adopt the alternative attitude. The attitude of a child.
It is important that you and I make a continuous effort to challenge our opinions. To ask questions. To dig deeper and deeper — and to get as close to the truth as possible.
We need a genuine dialogue, instead of the discussions we enter merely to re-confirm that we are right. We need to learn from one another, rather than try to win.
To encourage this genuine dialogue, having no opinion is sometimes the most helpful attitude. So don’t be afraid not to have a fixed standpoint. Ask questions. If you don’t know something — say it.
The world needs you to be able to say it.