If you were asked to choose who is better – a person who stays quiet and keeps their opinions to themselves or a person who is vocal about their opinions, I bet most of you would select the former. Staying quiet = being good has been drilled into our heads since childhood. Don’t talk back, don’t question your elders. After all that quiet time you would think we would be a nation of good listeners but our most viewed TV anchor is a man named Arnab Goswami, so what exactly is going on?
Truth is, we do like it under certain strict conditions. You are allowed to have opinions. You’re just not supposed to let anyone know what they are until you are above a certain age, or you get rich or famous. The rules are kind of like the ones governing underwear use. It’s OK to wear them as long as you don’t let anyone else see them. Unless you wear khaki shorts, in which case you exhibit it in public events and get called a patriot. If you’re young and unproven, you have no choice but to swallow your opinions and dream of a day when you too can wear your underwear outside your trousers and your heart on your sleeves, like a Desi superman.
Someday you will leave home with your parents’ blessings to take on the world, armed to the teeth with tradition and the collective wisdom of several generations of wise men and women (mostly men), and finally get to sit at tables where you don’t have to get up because someone older walked by.
You join in on what looks like a pleasant conversation with kids from ‘good families’, and let loose your opinion on the most pressing issues plaguing India, such as whether Shilpa Shetty’s husband made porno movies and how it pollutes the minds of the new generation who can access porn easier than you did. You are getting into your rhythm and gaining confidence when someone interjects and says “I disagree”.
Time slows down. Your hand freezes while reaching for the chaat masala and your jovial chuckle turns into a gurgle. Silence drops like a wet blanket over the whole table.
After the sheer suddenness of the move wears off, you channel the indignation of three generations of ancestors and bellow “I’m offended!”. Faces will go white, pigeons will fly away in terror, and people will run to your challenger and educate them about the need to respect people’s beliefs. Or at least, that’s what you expect, but to your surprise, it doesn’t happen. Instead, a few of the others join in and start talking about how there are more important issues. Liberal bastards.
After a while, you go back home in indignation, read the latest issue of Swarajyamag, and tune into Arnab shouting at a chair recently vacated by an anti-national. You smile a little, although with a twinge of nervousness.
Editorial note: Some of you might be offended by the casting in the story above. I will clarify that I can write multiple variations of the above using a lead character with different socio-religious-political makeup. I will gladly release updated editions when you all vote a different flavor of assholes into power and top rungs of society.
We were taught not to question our elders about their opinions so naturally, we expect that by the time we start expressing our own, no one else would dare question the absolute certainty of ours. It just messes with the natural order of things.
There is of course another group of people who believe in forming an opinion before their second grandchild joins school. They acknowledge that multiple opinions exist, and also believe that each opinion has a right to live freely without being questioned. When faced with facts or logic that might require them to modify their view, they simply declare “well this is my opinion” smugly, which is apparently a phrase that causes the universe to immediately spawn parallel ones where each opinion lives happily ever after without having to deal with annoying naysayers.
Then there’s a whole other group that intersects with many of the previous groups and believes that an opinion is a synonym of the word fact, and what the facts are, is a matter of opinion.
The root of all this chaos is that we put silence on a pedestal when kids are growing up, and then give them a megaphone and social approval for every bigoted opinion they form after they get their first grey hair. Especially if those opinions are as original as the eleventh Fast & Furious movie.
That’s not how this works. Opinions are like milestones you place on a new road you are building, to a destination you only vaguely know exists. They are not meant to be monuments that last five generations. They are meant to be way-markers to get there and replaced when a better path is found. Someone else might come along and laugh at how your road circles a tree fifteen times just before reaching the final destination. That’s annoying but OK. Otherwise they would be going in circles without even knowing it.
But instead, we vilify the people who dare to speak a half-formed opinion, even if they aren’t dogmatic about it. We like the people who keep quiet because you can just assume that they agree with you, even if their eyes are glazed over. I believe the single biggest reason we like other people’s babies is because you can pretend they will grow up to become just like you and not their parents. At the very least you won’t have to deal with them for decades, and you can have them touch your feet till then.
The only way out of this is to normalize the free sharing of opinions and get used to them being countered. It’s OK to speak your mind, even if you aren’t certain. Marinating your opinion for ages will not help you cook up a fact. It’s not a Peking duck, or barrel-aged fine whiskey. Your hand me down bigoted opinions are more like cheap hooch that was bottled immediately and served after twenty years. It will taste just as shitty as it did back then, maybe more.
I for one am happy to wear my red underwear outside my trousers and get laughed at. Are you?