What to think

Following on from some of the comments that I have received about my recent posts on my religious beliefs I have been thinking about why I hold the opinions that I do. I have strong views on a number of issues but most of these have evolved over time. As I try to stay open to other people’s arguments, particularly when we disagree, this is not really a surprise. It is often not the new facts that I may learn that will cause my opinion to shift a little, but rather being shown a different way of looking at a situation and the subsequent impact on those it affects directly. I am wary of telling someone else how to live their life or of declaring a lifestyle undesirable just because it would not suit me.

Growing up I would tend to follow rather than lead when it came to forming a view. If I had a high regard for someone then I would take note of what they thought and give that serious consideration. As a young person’s world is often confined to both a narrow geographical area and a narrow sample of humanity the views that I was exposed to did not vary greatly. Differences of opinion would be on points of detail rather than across the available spectrum of ideas.

The way we live as children depends largely on our parents, peers and community. Young children rarely question their way of life and opinions are copied from those they are exposed to in much the same way as they develop habits. It is only as that exposure is broadened and they start to notice that not everyone is like them that alternatives are considered. Even then the old habits, views and ideas can be hard to leave behind. Children can often be heard confidently condemning a type of person or behaviour just because they have heard their parents do so.

An example at the simplest level would be my attitude to what we eat. My mother was very concerned about sticking to a healthy diet long before this became popular. Growing up I would be offered fruit and yoghurt as a pudding rather than the sweet confections and carbohydrate rich staples associated with the nursery years. My sister and I were given a small allocation of sweets each week but were also expected to eat a piece of fruit each day. Dinners would always have generous portions of vegetables or salad.

When I moved away from the family home I loved having the freedom to eat as I pleased. If I wished to then I could skip dinner and eat an entire packet of biscuits in front of the television. I could eat chocolate cake rather than apples or oranges and have croissants for breakfast rather than oats or bran. These small rebellions did not last long as the novelty soon wore off and I experienced for myself how what we eat affects mood and a general sense of well being. I quickly returned to the healthy eating that I had been raised on and have taken a similar line with my own children.

In so many areas, though, the right way to think or act is not so obvious. My political views are constantly changing as I learn more about the background and repercussions of supporting one policy or another. I have friends from all shades of the political spectrum so I am exposed to a plethora of views and opinions. It amazes me that some people can think as they do when they support schemes that seem so impractical to me. Power corrupts even the best intentioned and we learn from history that certain political ideals just do not work in practice. Other friends seem worryingly blinkered despite appearing intelligent and articulate in other areas of their lives. Their fixed ideas and easy condemnations run counter to their normally empathetic lifestyles.

When I relied on the mainstream media for my news I would often be carried along by whatever propaganda was being preached; I would believe what I was being told. Having had my eyes opened to how ‘news’ is produced I will now do a lot more research before forming an opinion on current affairs. It can still be next to impossible to find unbiased reporting, but opinions tend to be presented in a more measured and obvious way outside of the traditional news outlets. Knowing the writers sympathies and having access to source material allows considered views to be formed rather than following populist opinion.

It can still be difficult to change a long held view even if it does look as if it may actually be wrong. Throughout history humans have feared what they see as different; feared a change that will impact their way of life. In trying to embrace what looks like a good idea it can be difficult to avoid repercussions that may not appear immediately obvious. So often those who wish to push something through will have hidden agendas that are hard to uncover and do not become obvious until after the event.

I also believe that it is important not to become too cynical. Realism and honesty may take a back seat when someone is pushing for their pet project to be adopted or to have their take on an issue accepted, but we should not approach all change with suspicion. The end may not justify the means so we should ask questions before offering support, but should also be willing to accept that a change we may not feel totally comfortable with now may have little if any effect on us but a huge benefit for others.

Whenever I am considering an issue it can be so satisfying to find writers who can express my thoughts on the matter clearly and succinctly. I am aware that I need to read alternative views as well. I believe that we all need to guard against reading and discussing issues only with those who think as we do. Comforting though it may be to have our reasoning corroborated by those we trust and admire we may learn more from considering why equally intelligent individuals think quite differently.

Opinion is not fact and most controversial issues are not clear cut. We are more likely to persuade others to see things from our point of view if we can be clear in our own mind why we think as we do. If more people could reason and consider rather than following the most skillful orator we may have fewer people condemning others for no reason other than a vague view that what they are thinking or doing is wrong.

Just because a way of life was accepted before does not mean that it is right now. We should not be fearful of change, or of changing our minds. We should not allow a wrong to be perpetuated just because others are comfortable with the status quo. When we have considered the options and mindfully formed a view we should be willing to stand up for that cause. Some changes need to be allowed to happen for humanity to progress and flourish.

‘The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.’

Reason

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