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Before you express an opinion, do this.

Posted in the following categories: Life Lessons

Opinions have never been cheaper than they are now.

We have an opinion on everything: From Donald Trump to the iPhone X, from how to end the conflict in Syria to whether Brad and Jen should reunite.

On the one hand, this is great. Opinions were once the domain of elites with resources to put them out in the world. Now, a computer is all we need to start our own media channel. We can broadcast articles, publish podcasts, and put out videos to millions without getting the approval of a middleman. We’ve all been handed a virtual megaphone for free.

Yet this convenience has come at a significant cost. Opinions have been degraded. We’ve so lowered the threshold for stating an opinion that we stopped doing the work that’s required to express one. We began adopting 140 character analyses as our own and pretending to fulfill our civic engagement responsibilities by clicking “like” or “retweet.” We started commenting on blog posts and articles without even bothering to read them (there’s an acronym for that: TL;DR, meaning Too Long; Didn’t Read). I don’t know a single writer who hasn’t been attacked by an army of anonymous combatants on Twitter based solely on the title of what they wrote.

Social conditioning is in part to blame. We’ve mastered the art of pretending to have an opinion, smiling, nodding, and bluffing our way through a makeshift answer. We’ve been told to “fake it until we make it,” and we’ve become experts at the faking part. We’ve come to value chest beating and delivering clear answers with conviction, even when we have little more than two minutes of Wikipedia knowledge on an issue.

I regularly observe this phenomenon in the law school where I teach. A few years ago, shortly after the Supreme Court rendered its controversial decision in Citizens United, a student stopped by my office to vent his frustration with the opinion. This exchange then followed:

Me: “Have you read it?”

Student: “Have I read what?”

Me: “The opinion?”

Student: “No. But I listened to a segment on it on CNN this morning.”

These exchanges, which happen too many times each semester, remind me of Hansel’s award acceptance speech from the movie, Zoolander: “Sting would be another person who’s a hero to me. The music that he’s created over the years, I don’t really listen to it, but the fact that he’s making it, I respect that.”

Instead of bothering to listen, read, or even skim, we rely on sound bites that inevitably distort the content. The resulting distortions, once reported and retweeted, become the truth. Even when these myths are exposed for what they are, they have an enormous staying power. For example, after the supposed link between autism and the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine turned out to be fraudulent, the myth persisted. Parents refused to vaccinate their children, resulting in a significant uptick in measles cases.

I get it: We’re flooded with information, and we can’t possibly digest it all.

But if we haven’t read it, we shouldn’t have an opinion on it. It’s that simple.

This means that, from time to time, we must utter those three dreaded words: “I don’t know.” I find it liberating to relieve myself of the pressure to opine on everything. What’s more, something beautiful happens when we candidly acknowledge that we don’t have an opinion. Our mind opens and our ears perk up. It’s the first step to developing what’s called shoshin or beginner’s mind in Zen Buddhism—an attitude that eschews prior judgments with fixed points of view and remains eager in anticipation of possibilities to learn and grow. As Stoic philosopher Epictetus put it, “it is impossible to learn that which one thinks one already knows.”

For the masters, simply doing the reading isn’t enough. They go a step further and engage in what’s called steelmanning. This is the opposite of strawmanning, where you find and attack the weakest arguments on the other side. Steelmanning requires you to find and articulate the strongest form of the opposition’s argument. If you can understand the opposition’s argument better than the opposition does, your power to persuade will increase exponentially.

Yes, this approach requires more work. But it’s well worth the effort.

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