Humans have been cursed with an irresistible urge to have a view on everything. Photo: Stocksy
I was listening to talkback radio the other day when I heard "Nigel from Cheltenham" call in to challenge Tim Flannery's views on climate change. I wasn't listening intently because I was busy ramming a small fork into my eyeball, but suffice to say Tim Flannery was quoting some research about climate change and Nige was disputing it. I know it's a fraught area, but I'm going to go out on a limb here and side with Professor Flannery.
Human beings have an irresistible urge to have a view on everything. There's nothing new about that – caveman 1 was probably telling caveman 2 how to grill his sausages (turn them once, then leave them alone). What is indisputably new is that we have a far larger audience with whom to share those views and I think this is giving us a false sense of our knowledge bank. This is especially the case when we feel strongly about an issue: I'm passionate about a subject, ergo I am an expert. Look, I feel very strongly about Whispering Jack, but that doesn't mean I can sing. Well, I can sing, but I shouldn't do it in public. You get my drift?
Nige from Cheltenham isn't alone. Any of us who were around in the '80s will remember the Lindy Chamberlain trial. Never before has Australia seen so many expert jurists carefully weighing the evidence before lynching Lindy in the town square. We felt very strongly that babies shouldn't die (and that mothers shouldn't be Mormon or not cry in public) and so we decided to convict. It felt good. Until we were wrong, and then it didn't.
This dynamic is played out over and over again. Consider the current debate about vaccination. Despite the overwhelming scientific evidence in favour of vaccination – it is arguably the greatest medical invention in human history, saving the most lives and suffering – some people feel uncomfortable with it. It involves your kids and a needle and people on the Internet say it's bad. I had a parent once chastise me about vaccinating my kids. She literally said, "you shouldn't have done that, kids aren't the same after vaccination." To which I replied, "they're not the same after Polio either." Boom.
The annoying thing is, we all do it. Take sport. There's not a one among us who hasn't offered their refereeing skills to the television. How many of us knew whether or not Thorpie should have made a comeback (and, for that matter, when he should have come out)? I recall sitting next to a woman at the Australian Open who suggested that Serena Williams would "do better" if she "trimmed down". To the say this woman herself was on the voluptuous side of average is an understatement; plus, Serena Williams is probably the most successful tennis player of all time. But by all means lady, weigh-in (pun intended).
To be clear, I'm not suggesting emotion isn't important. I am an emotional person - I once cried during a Brandpower ad (though they do have some very moving products), and there are times in public debate that the lack of emotion is conspicuously disappointing. Consider, for instance, the often unfathomably short sentences for sexual crimes. Can those handing down these sentences have any sense at all of the emotional and psychological devastation caused by sexual assault? One can only assume not. But emotion must take a back seat – or at the very least sit side by side – with reason, and deference to expertise is warranted on complicated issues.
I'll end on another example. Cast your minds back many months ago to the tragic loss of Luke Batty and to the subsequent furore over public commentators suggesting that his mother should have "just left" (for the record, she did). I understand the emotional response to a beautiful young boy being murdered; what I don't understand is why those commentators - without knowledge or any expertise in the area of family violence – are even weighing into the debate. How about saying, "I don't know." Or, "I feel very sad about it and I know as much as someone in my position could, but I do not know enough to offer a view" - especially when that view could cause so much pain.
I. Do. Not. Know.
Feelpinion is tempting. It feels good to be heard and the number of outlets to share our views reinforces the idea that they're useful. Sometimes they are, but I'm mounting a defence of quiet. If you find yourself getting hot under the collar or your heart is hurting, can I humbly suggest you sit with it for a bit before you call Jon Faine.
Or don't, you're the expert.