Our Vigilante Society: Stating Your Opinion Is One Thing, but You’re Not Always Right (Part 2 of previous blog)  

vigilanteI recently walked myself off a cliff by listening to the adamant opinion of a person on a committee with me. Despite lessons learned through personal experience and a thoughtful review of the situation and its facts, I thought my recommendations were wrong. The strength of her beliefs and her swift, smooth delivery seemed to trump my judgment. After following her instructions, complete failure threatened. Fortunately I had time to pull my irons out of the fire, which allowed me to implement my assessment and complete the project successfully.

            Goes to show, though, that just because someone thinks he’s right, he isn’t necessarily. Yet along with our obsession with stating our opinions constantly (see previous blog), we also think we’re correct in every thought, and all and sundry should follow our advice. If they don’t enthusiastically endorse our suggestions, we go overboard in our insistence about being right.

            According to the psychological principle of cognitive dissonance, humans experience psychological discomfort when exposed to contradictory beliefs, ideas. An individual exposed to inconsistency (dissonance) is motivated to try to reduce this dissonance—as well as actively avoid situations and information likely to increase it. He often becomes more committed to his favorite, obdurate in defending it.

            The result contributes to a polarized society, a situation in which you’re either with me or against me, no middle ground. The result is laws that emphasize the dichotomy between interests, not their common ground. The result is stand-offs during discussions, not solutions. The most obvious result is failure of many political efforts. Rhetoric trumps intelligence.

            How have we gotten to this state? It’s been said students in the US are the most self-confident in the world. Notice, not the most knowledgeable or best-trained or smartest. Parents constantly receive advice to build self-esteem in their children.  Our laws and procedures and many leaders both political and social strive mightily to insure diverse opinions are given the credibility of a public forum, whether they make sense or not. Life coaches drone on about sending positive messages to ourselves.

            I’m concerned because I’m wondering if a surfeit of self-confidence creates a vigilante society. My local elist, to which neighbors can subscribe, exhibits this periodically. One person posts about a dark car parked on the street with someone sitting inside. Within hours, others have responded with similar spottings, advice, and demands for a police check. Another time, a poor couple strolling down the alley were targeted as potential thieves, suffering the discomfort of dozens of eyes tracking their every action. Fortunately, responses stopped short of calls for lynching.

            Another reason for a watchdog atmosphere is social media and the speed with which we can communicate. Colorado has one toll-free phone number to report child abuse and neglect 24/7. While the goals of this program are laudable, I wonder how often someone gets reported because of the appearance of abuse (think about how often a two-year-old falls and scrapes his head) or the groundless spite a neighbor might hold. A neighbor once reported us to the authorities for our efforts to control squirrels, perjuring themselves to claim we’d violated city ordinances.

            I’m guessing Big Brother watches because of a combination of the two. We’re accustomed to instantaneous communication plus many of us have the self-confidence to assume our every idea is correct and should be immediately implemented. WRONG. There’s something to be said about “measure twice, saw once;” and “look before you leap.” An advice columnist recently ran a letter from a woman who’d accused her niece of stealing some jewelry, wrote about it on social media, then found the missing piece in the pocket of her own coat. She would have spared herself massive embarrassment and kept her niece as a friend by using a go-slow approach.

            There can be more at stake than winning an argument or defending what we think is the truth. “Wide differences of opinion in matters of religious, political, and social belief must exist if conscience and intellect alike are not to be stunted, if there is to be room for healthy growth.” Teddy Roosevelt


 Two teenage girls fighting

An accidental collision in the Target parking lot introduced me to a young woman. I was at fault, and admitted it; we exchanged contact information, then departed. ‘Nuff said? Oh, no. A few days later I received an email chock full of her instructions, couched not in sympathetic terms, more like a lecture from a study hall monitor.

           I should have checked behind myself more closely, could have asked if she’d been injured, surely would have been in trouble with the police had she reported the incident. Although relieved she hadn’t accompanied the tirade with an abundance of swear words (“fuck” being the operative term for anyone under the age of 45), amid my irritation at her gall, I wondered when the standard operating procedure has appointed every person with an opinion as an expert compelled to tell all and sundry what they’re doing wrong.*

          Whether it’s the food we eat, our personal care habits, or our politics, someone is sure to tell us we’re headed for disaster. The role of judge used to be reserved primarily to parents, clergy, military superiors, and, of course, judges. Now everyone’s an authority and ever-vigilant to deliver advice, whether requested or not.

          One person points out the extreme dangers I’m courting when I drink an artificially sweetened soda. Another lists the impacts of GMOs on my health. My granddaughter knows I should be using special lotions for face, body, hands, and feet, and tells me so. My 4-year-old grandson shouts direction about how I should be driving and parking. On television a cacophony of ads bark the advantages of various health treatments, often in conflict with each other, which they warn against. In a meeting to plan an event, each person argues for a different agenda, speaker, budget. On a larger level, the same scenario plays out over issues such as oil development, political parties, even religion. Everyone is absolutely right at the same time totally wrong.

          Is this simply the way we now function? Some believe Americans are so self-confident, they may feel they’re all-knowing and always correct. That’s not the point. To quote Isaac Asimov, “People who think they know everything are a great annoyance to those of us who do.” Know-it-alls are irritating and rude. I can overlook that in my friends, who have positive qualities and are speaking with the enthusiasm of religious converts dedicating to educating me. Not from a woman in a parking lot one-third my age and experience with not a glint of information about my qualities and state of mind. Not from the supporter of a candidate who believes he can solve problems I don’t even agree are problems.

          Truth is, no omnipotent judge sits in the bar across from Loudmouth and me who’ll select the winner in a drunken debate. No absolute rights and wrongs in this game of life. Coming from a contentious family in which every member has more strong opinions and inclination to argue than sense or good will, I had to fight my natural inclinations before I stumbled on a new perspective about opinions. The more you talk, the less you’re listening. The more you lecture, the less you’re assimilating. While a lively debate can be fun, rarely does progress occur.

          I’ve discovered I can shorten the amount of time wasted in futile conversations, lower my own blood pressure, perhaps even learn something if I shut up. Plus I can then feel morally superior to my opponent. I like to think I’m helping improve the general tenor of society.

“I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.” Socrates.