One problem with writing an opinion column is that you actually need to have an opinion. Sometimes I don’t have an opinion. Especially this week when I’ve got my feet up on a happy new year holiday.
I’m always pretty cautious about jumping to conclusions. Even if there’s a glaring issue in the news I’ll usually change my mind several times before reluctantly settling somewhere on the fence.
This makes me either a voice of reason or an irritating flake, depending on the topic. (I’ll go with voice of reason, if you don’t mind, although you’re welcome to your own opinion on that.)
Now here I am, first week of January, with no opinion at all. What’s an opinion columnist to do?
Many people don’t suffer from lack of an opinion. Take a detour through the comment section under most website blogs and news articles. Plenty of opinion there.
Reading online comments is a bit like toying with an ulcer. It hurts, but the pain is fascinating enough to keep going.
Most of it is uninformed. Much of it spirals emphatically down toxic rabbit holes with reckless disregard for polite discourse.
Scathing comments turn up on Facebook too, which surprises me because it’s not a particularly anonymous forum.
Simon Bridges copped some flack last year when he was trying to defend deep sea oil drilling. Whenever the Anadarko story turned up on my Facebook feed, a few people typically jumped into the comment boxes to hurl gleefully blunt labels at their least favourite politician of the moment.
I’m not fond of the oil thing either, but there are ways to validate your position without throwing muck at the opposition.
I try to avoid being uncharitable about others in writing. I don’t think it matters that the person you’re insulting will probably never see your Facebook post. If you wouldn’t say it to their face, why stamp your nastiness into the public record by writing it down? What does that say about your own character?
This is a problem with the written word and its illusion of anonymity. Safely shielded behind our computers, we get carried away with our own rhetoric. We forget that the targets of our wit or our wrath are living, breathing human beings.
People are people no matter who they are, no matter what their day job is.
It’s unlikely, but who knows, one day you might actually meet the person you’ve publicly excoriated and they could turn out to be quite different to the cartoon villain you thought you were ranting against.
Or suppose they do live up to your worst fears? That’s on them, not you.
For me, it’s a matter of integrity. The Golden Rule – treat others the way you’d like to be treated – applies for people we disagree with too.
Genuine debate invigorates me. It stretches my brain and it helps me to see things differently. I rather enjoy exploring arguments with people who have a different perspective, so long as they are willing to disagree in a spirit of respect.
Maybe I’ve been surfing with the wrong crowd but thoughtful debate seems hard to come by in the online trenches.
Nastiness is the way of the world and it’s the way of the web. That doesn’t mean we have to join in. I vote for the high ground. Let’s make 2014 a year of courtesy.
Look at me sweeping my sanctimonious broom of judgement across the floor of the internet. Huh. Turns out I have an opinion this week after all.
First published in Bay of Plenty Times 3 January 2014. Reproduced with permission.