How contagious are opinions?

I like to think that, as I go through life, I learn from the experience. I observe and listen to the people I meet, I consider the various texts that I read on all mediums, I evaluate my responses and question if I should be adjusting my point of view. I wonder though how much of this is within my reasoned control. I wonder if all opinions are contagious.

Let me try to explain what I mean. I consider myself fortunate in being surrounded by intelligent individuals both at home and amongst my wider sphere of friends. These people come from differing backgrounds and often have strong views which they can back up with carefully presented examples and facts. They are capable of arguing their cases calmly and cogently even if they come to differing conclusions amongst themselves. They consider those who do not agree with them to be at best deluded, but more often foolish. They each appear convinced of their own rightness.

I am rarely convinced of my absolute rightness. Apart from my views on religion, which are based on a belief born of many personal experiences, most of my views have been built up over many years and are not fixed. It is not that I am swinging wildly from one side to the other, but rather that I am not so fixated on any particular argument that I am unwilling to consider that I may need to take some outcome into account that I had not previously considered.

I wonder how much I am influenced by impressive oratory skills and how much by the opinions presented. How blinkered are the views of those I listen to?

In an attempt to learn more about why people think as they do I follow quite a few political activists on line. I read a great number of comment pieces and consider historical outcomes based on principles argued for that, too often, didn’t quite work out as anticipated. The more I learn the less clear I am about any side’s rightness. I do not understand how my friends can be so unquestioning in what they argue for.

Yet I do believe that their opinions are contagious. Once they have put their thoughts into my head I cannot forget them. The thoughts sit there, waiting to offer a rebuttal to the next opposing point of view. By trying to be receptive and fair in my own opinions I am considering conflicting conclusions drawn from the same finite well of facts. How am I to know what to think?

Let me put down some questions to consider. Do we encourage the government to spend huge amounts of money on developing so called renewable energy when the resulting environmental benefits are questionable? Do we ensure that nobody goes hungry by increasing the availability of welfare for the needy when this acts as a sticking plaster rather than addressing the cause which is often not enough access to decent jobs? Do we invest in encouraging enterprise to create jobs when this also benefits the wealthy? Do we increase taxes on the wealthy when this will encourage them to move to a country that is less punitive, thereby removing their investment from the economy? Do we nationalise to keep profits within the economy when this has, historically, led to gross waste, lack of investment and inefficiency?

The previous paragraph is obviously simplistic and the causes/effects questionable. However, I have listened to many arguments that both back up and refute each of these examples. The result of these assaults on my reason is that I have no clear answers, I do not know what to think.

Yet in each of these cases I do think something, I cannot help but have an opinion. Often this is based on what I would once have considered to be common sense, yet that is invariably biased and based on views I have been exposed to rather than facts I can be sure of. Of course I do not wish to see any citizen of what is still a wealthy country go hungry, but if the hungry choose not to buy food because of an addiction should we subsidise that? I wish the ill to receive quality healthcare, but if their illness is not life threatening then should they receive whatever treatment they desire? Always there is an opposing argument, an extreme case to be cited, statistics that show how many or how few cases exist. There are statistics to back up every argument and a slippery slope for the opposition to take advantage of. How far do we go with the finite resources available?

I am not attempting to offer answers for any of this but rather to put forward for consideration this idea that our thoughts, views and beliefs are influenced so strongly by the arguments that we are exposed to. I would argue that, with difficult and complex situations to consider, nobody can be absolutely right.

One of the things that I find quite depressing is that some of those I know are so willing to mock opposing points of view in an attempt to sway opinion. They come across as patronising rather than convincing. In the public sphere this is also the case, an example being in the climate change debate. Eminent scientists on both sides offer biased and incomplete arguments, dismissing the opposition with accusations of being under dubious paymasters and therefore not trustworthy. There is little open and reasoned debate. It is hard, as an observer, to be sympathetic to either side when it is clear that this issue has become such a money spinner. Big oil may finance the sceptics but agreeing with ‘the consensus’ appears to be necessary to retain a job in the field. Science suffers as trust is lost amongst the spin and hyperbole. Information is hidden, opposing opinions derided, the public patronised.

I will continue to attempt to learn but have become much more cynical as I have observed how my own response to difficult questions can be altered by a well researched article or debate. Where is the balance between being too easily swayed and stubbornly digging in when a position becomes dubious as previously unknown facts come to light? Difficult questions rarely have easy answers.

I find it depressing that papers such as The Daily Mail are still influential, the mainstream media reports only news that it knows will sell, headlines mislead and memories are short. Too few seem interested in paying attention, preferring to believe the popular sound bites and shock tactics employed to sway public opinion.

Even when I do not agree, I can respect other’s right to hold opinions based on critical thinking. Perhaps some may consider themselves better than others, a conceit that is unlikely to be conducive to open and rational thought, but if they can back up their opinions when pressed, whatever their prejudices, then I can learn from them. Who knows, perhaps over time some of my opinions may even be caught by those I know. I suspect that some may be horrified at such a thought.

f66b3_Thought

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