Aren’t we just full of opinions? As a friend of mine wrote in her book: “[While} having so many ways to bring our opinions into public discussion has been, on the whole, a terrific development… not all ideas are equal―equally valid, equally worthy, equally verifiable.” In a related article, she noted: “the opportunity to comment doesn’t mean we’re required to put in our two cents, notwithstanding our collective compulsion to do so.” However, she also recognized that the horse is out of the barn (or maybe the train has left the station; you get the drift) when it comes to opinionating—many of us are likely to grab any and every opportunity to opine–the least we can do is make every attempt to make an expressed opinion as informed as possible.
My name is Nikki Stern and I approve this message. Okay, I wrote this message, in my book Because I Say So and in an article called “IMHO” I bring this up because I’ve found myself this fall throwing opinions all over the place: on my blog, on Facebook, on the website I publish (Does This Make Sense) and, most recently, in the New York Times.
Opining on the Times website isn’t like opining on AOL. By and large, the commenters are smart, well-read and restrained in their responses (of course the Times screens the comments before publishing them, so perhaps I’m just not seeing the “!%$&@)%(*^*” versions that come into the editors’ inboxes. What this means is that if I have an impulse to comment, I know I’d better make sense. In part, it’s my ego at work: I don’t want appear to be a complete idiot. On the other hand, who’s going to remember commenter #49 on the recent Charles Blow or Frank Bruni op-ed? Exactly: no one. Still, I feel a certain responsibility to sound intelligent—to be intelligent.
Of course I’d like to attract a little attention on behalf of whatever I’m promoting (a book, a blog) before my comment scrolls by and disappears into the ethos. This can be achieved by obtaining “recommendations” which are garnered when the reader hits a little button at the end of the comment and which means said comment may be highlighted on the site. Gad, everything’s a competition these days!
The situation causes me to hesitate before I comment (a good thing), and then, if I decide to post my thoughts, I will write out and carefully proof them before I hit “send” (an even better thing). Sometimes, thanks to the unpredictability of the keyboard and the undeniable fact that my brain works faster than my fingers, I may end up with a typo. But my thoughts are nearly always clear.
I also read other comments on the post where I’ve left my comment but also on other pieces I find provocative (or pieces I don’t understand). If Paul Krugman tells me why the Euro is a terrible idea, I want to read what more knowledgeable people have to say on the subject. Granted, Krugman is a Nobel Prize-winning economist and some of the commenters don’t know the difference between a derivative and a derivation but I’m frequently surprised about the level of thought and intelligence that goes into the replies. At the very least, I get more background and more history.
I also read letters to the editor for my favorite magazines. Sometimes I try to read comments and letters in magazines I don’t care for, like Reason Magazine (I don’t really dislike the magazine, but some of the articles in Reason–which purports to be a libertarian magazine–are pompous in the extreme); or letters in magazines I don’t care about. I love reading the letters section in New York Magazine because they aren’t simply letters but blog postings, tweets, passing comments—all reactions to the often provocative stories within. Like Vanity Fair and The Atlantic, the magazine makes a big deal out of noticing and promoting and replying to and arguing with the people who are noticing and replying to and arguing about something they read (which means they’re promoting it, of course).
Everyone has an opinion; no doubt about it. And everyone wants their opinions to count. One way to do that is to use your opinion as a way to start a conversation or encourage a response; to learn something from other opinionators; to practice writing clearly and concisely; to get better at framing an argument; to think, to review your own feelings about a topic, to get in the game. We might not all end up as recommended picks or one step closer to our own op-ed column, but we’ll be smarter commentators. And that means we’ll be smarter citizens.