Blog – In defence of uncertainty

My social media feeds have started to depress me recently. So full of people with such strong opinions, but often with little to back them up. Social media has been like this for some time of course, but the current political turmoil in the UK has made it even more prevalent. Some people have got into the habit of posting and sharing any meme, quote or article which seemingly supports their point of view, without considering whether they specifically agree with that particular meme/quote/article, or even whether it is factually accurate.

My own politics are left-leaning, and nearly all my Facebook friends and the people I follow on Twitter are also lefties, at least to some extent, so most of the nonsense I see comes from my own side. I expect the Tories and Ukip to lie, distort and mislead, but I (perhaps naively) expect better from people I, mainly, agree with. I often find myself starting to write long-winded responses to posts I feel to be misleading or inaccurate, even if I agree with the broader point being made. I usually abandon halfway through, because I’m not sure a social media argument has ever led to someone changing their opinion or admitting they were wrong.

What surprises me more than anything though, is the certainty with which people express their opinions. It’s rarely “I think this…” or “I believe that…” but more often “THIS IS HOW IT IS AND ANYONE WHO THINKS OTHERWISE IS A ****”. This may well be a case of the pot calling the kettle black, as I may previously have been one of the most argumentative, opinionated, people around, but I think I have (mainly) grown out of that by now.

This certainty of opinion is by no means limited to politics. As a parent, I’ve been astonished by the vehemence with which some parents claim that their style of parenting is the only correct one. As a music lover, it’s amazing how often you see people insisting that one album or band is definitively, empirically better than another, when what they really mean is that they personally enjoy it more. Friends of mine will recognise the irony in me saying this, as I have spent most of my life giving such definitive opinions on music myself . I’m fairly sure I once told one of my friends that Trompe Le Monde couldn’t be her favourite Pixies album,as it had to be Doolittle or Surfer Rosa.

The older I get though, the more I realise that, I don’t really know all that much about anything. As a parent, I’m pretty much making it up as I go along, and what I have learnt probably only applies to my own child not everybody elses. When it comes to politics my opinions are based on a little bit of knowledge and a lot of gut instinct.  There may be a few subjects I know more about than the average person on the street – music, cricket, porters (the beer not people who work in hospitals), the history of the papacy (long story). Even with these subjects there are thousands of people who know more about them than I do.

There is so much to know in this world, that we cannot expect to understand more than a tiny proportion of it. That knowledge makes me aware that I could be wrong about almost anything. For example, I truly believe that Brexit will be disaster for the UK, as should be clear from the piece I wrote on Friday. But, I’m not an economist, or a political expert, and even those people often get things wrong. We could turn out to be fine. I think it unlikely, but I can’t claim it’s impossible, or that I’m certain I am correct.

So, I try my best not to express my opinions with too much certainty, as they could well be wrong, but I often fail to meet this standard. I still find myself expressing very strong opinions on the qualities of particular football players, even though I watch so little football nowadays that Gabriel Agbonlahor could be better than Pele for all I know. I’m sure there are plenty of other occasions where I present unfounded opinions as definitive without even realising I’m doing it.

But I try, and I think the world, or at least social media, would be a better place if we were all prepared to be a bit more uncertain, to admit that we might sometimes get things wrong, and that those we disagree with may sometimes get things right. I’m not suggesting anyone abandons their deeply held principles, or that we should not defend those principles with passion and vigour,  but most of our viewpoints are based on a mixture of principle and judgement, and it’s those judgments can be mistaken.

It’s not as bad it sometimes seems though. The people who shout the loudest on social media, and take up a disproportionate amount of its’ virtual space, tend to be those with the strongest opinions. They are not the majority, though. I remain convinced that most people are, like myself, certain only of their uncertainty.

Anyway, in case this piece came across as a little holier-than-thou, here’s a list of things I’ve got wrong over the years, to get the ball rolling. Not exhaustive of course, I don’t have all day.

  • I remember saying that it wasn’t possible to be a good person and also vote Conservative. I disagree with the Conservatives policies as much as I ever did, but I no longer believe that voting for them means you are irredeemably evil (although I suspect some people I know may still think that is the case).
  • I voted Lib Dem in 2010. That didn’t turn out well. Although I could be wrong about being wrong of course, as we don’t know how things would have turned out otherwise.
  • I never thought that I’d get married. Initially because I didn’t want to, latterly because I just didn’t think it would happen. The day I met my wife I went from being almost completely sure it wouldn’t happen to being almost completely sure it would pretty much instantly.
  • I thought there was no way that Donald Trump would be the Republican presidential nominee and as recently as this morning thought that Boris Johnson would be our next Prime Minister.
  • I thought that Stephen McPhail would become one of Leeds United’s greatest ever players (bit of an obscure one for the non-football fans amongst you).
  • I thought I would never listen to country music, or jazz.
  • I thought that Ipods would never catch on, and that Iphones would never catch on, and that Ipads would never catch on, and that Apple Watches would never catch on (I may still be right about the last one of these).
  • I thought doing a maths degree would be the easiest option, because I was good at it at A-Level.
  • I thought I would never get tired of going to Glastonbury, but I did. I still plan to go back when I have my mid-life crisis though.
  • I thought moving into a house with three flights of stairs between our bedroom and the kitchen when my wife was heavily pregnant was a good idea.

Turns out that thinking of all the things I’ve been wrong about is both worrying and strangely reassuring. I wonder what I’ll be wrong about next. And if anyone who reads this blog or who I know in real life would like to remind me of other things I’ve been wrong about…maybe don’t bother.

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