The Age of Opinion

In previous blog posts, I had categorized our present age variously as the age of fear, the age of personality, the age of the artist and now I am going to add a fourth: the age of opinion.

We have always had opinions but many of us have not been able to express them in past eras. This was for many reasons: some of our predecessors could not articulate opinions due to a lack of education and a lack of access to channels or communication tools; some of us were censured for our opinions with punishments as harsh as jail or death; some of us preferred to keep our opinions to ourselves as it was culturally more acceptable.

Then social media dawned and made it all possible, and in some instances, mandatory; we had to have a public persona. Everyone had to know everything about us. “Just Google him!” became a standard. It was professional suicide if a person who actively pursued a profession that dealt with the public—like a writer, for instance—was told that he could not be found on the Internet. And this led to people wanting to know what you stood for: “Take a stand, man. Show us your beliefs, principles, ideas, life stories and family pictures. We want to know that you are a living, breathing thing out there.” And on the employment field, “If you want a job with us, we wanna know all about you before you even step in for an interview. Oh, and if we don’t like what you’ve posted in cyberspace, don’t be surprised if we suddenly cancel that interview on you. Forget resumes and references, just your online persona will give us clues on whether you will be a fit with us.” It was as if job ads had a subliminal qualifier: “Strong silent types need not apply.” Thus, after all this information was uploaded, there was only one step left: gravitate towards being a full•fledged Online Opinionator. Why not?

And so we have opinions on everything: what we eat, where we vacation, what we read, what we buy, who we date. And we love to offer opinions. People do not make a purchase based solely on advertizing any more—no, we need everyone’s thoughts on it as well. Oh, you poor ad companies, you that fuelled and funded those start•up social media sites, did you think that matters would come to this pass?

One thing that all this opining helps with is in choosing your friends more easily. If everyone is wearing their hearts on their sleeves these days, or, more aptly, flashing their opinions on their Facebook pages, it’s easy to know where you stand relative to the other. Perhaps the entry point to person•to•person friendships in future will be a virtual one at first. Perhaps Facebook will invent new signs to follow their ubiquitous “like” and “comment,” buttons, like “Let’s Meet for Coffee” followed by “You passed, now you can phone me” or “You failed, bozo.”

Not sure where this will end. Maybe we will drown in our opinions and start regurgitating them (there are only a finite number of opinions one can have, surely. I am fast running out of my supply). Friends will tune out, and it will become harder for corporations to find employees who fit squarely into their boxes. I see more buttons for Facebook: “no opinions, please” and “opinionated out.” “Gimme the facts, man” will be back in style. Perhaps those job ads will change their qualifying line to, “Only strong silent types without a Facebook page need apply.”

And so the world will go around and another age will surely dawn upon us.

Too much information

I was asked for my opinion on Wiki Leaks and the scandals erupting in cyberspace, where top secret documents suddenly appear to embarrass high•ranking military officials, bureaucrats and corporate barons. Are we justified in having this stuff floating around in the public domain, I was quizzed? Or should we let it all hang out and sock it to these honchos in high places who help each other out by launching wars, who cry for bailouts, and who lock the taxpayer into an “or else” hammer lock in order to fund their shenanigans under threat of terrorism or bankruptcy?

My first reaction was, “Dare anyone speak about this stuff in this day and age? Let’s see • if I am pro•Wiki Leaks, I could get on some nation’s no•fly list; if I am anti•Leaks, the hackers will block my Visa & Master Card accounts, erase me from social networking sites and punish me.” But either way, I could become famous if I go public with my plight. Hmm…

My next reaction was, “Another opinion on Wiki Leaks? Haven’t we made its owner a cult hero already with our nosiness? I mean, don’t we already know that classified stuff exists under any political system? Don’t we keep information protected via copyright, patent and trade secret laws? Aren’t writers agitating to have their copyrights protected and not splashed all over the Internet for free? Okay, and why do we have to have this leaked stuff piled on us in these digital dumpsters, filling our information intake valves faster than the garbage gushing into Toronto’s landfills? Hasn’t anyone learned that “less is more?”

Finally, I caved. “Okay, if you insist, I’ll venture an opinion, but you may not like it.” (Note to reader: Writers are opinionated people)

Disclosing information is good if it makes the world a better place, reveals injustice and leads to its correction – I’m sold on that. Enron was a good example, so was Mount Cashel. But there is a limit to disclosing information, especially if it harms people, property, or both, and especially if nothing good can be salvaged out of the disclosure. Didn’t we only recently coin that phrase “Too Much Information,” one that young people bandy around liberally these days in their text messages? For instance, if two neighbours are getting along, however tenuously, why upset the apple cart by saying to one that the other guy had once called him an asshole? Sure that’s disclosure, but does it advance progress or enhance relationships? Does it make the neighbourhood a better place? Do I need to know what my kids call me when they are mad at Dad?

So my opinion on this business: use common sense, guys! Whistle•blowing and mud•slinging are two different activities, although they both begin with a sense of frustration and a desire for change.

Oh that reminds me—I’d better check the showerhead in my washroom now. Just in case a hacker from either side of the debate, unhappy with my opinion, sneaks in a spy•cam and “captures” me on digital. The fame I have sought as a writer of strong male characters will come to me in the most sudden and unexpected way. I can imagine the instantaneous blurb on You Tube “Extra, Extra: Writer Lets It All Hang Out. Check him out • he is not as hot as his fiction!”

So, what’s your opinion? You must have one, mustn’t you?

What is your take on the old country? After all, you are a writer, and don’t writers always have opinions? About almost everything?

I do have a take – and that is that I left the old country to begin a new life in Canada. I brought with me my thwarted dreams to realize them here. I left behind the resentment, disappointment and alienation of being marginalized. Does that answer your question?

Not quite. The dead rebel leader, whose body was paraded on TV like a prized kill from a hunt, was similar in age to you. You lived about 200 miles from each other: him in the north, you in the south. He came from a minority group while you belonged to another minority. You were both discriminated against in your own ways. He chose to take up arms to fight for a piece of land to call his own, you left to find yours in a cold but warm•hearted country called Canada. His legacy leaves a country divided and devastated, while you were able to give a few people some hope in this new land. Is that a fair description, Mr. Writer?

Yes. I also think that home is a place in time, not a piece of land, for I have had many homes.

So what’s your opinion? You still haven’t said it. Instead you skirt around the issue like a good politician. Are you afraid that you will be another name added to PEN’s growing list?

Well, since you persist, I think now that the military in the old country has done such an efficient job of ending the war, its government should step aside and let the peacemakers take over. Build statues and immortalize the victorious President if you must, but let him take his place in history, not in infamy. Even Churchill knew when it was time to go. I think that blocking highways and creating civil inconveniences in the streets of Toronto and other world•class cities does not show world•class strategy. I think that statements such as “there will be no more minorities” needs further clarification as it is a loaded one to make. I think that opening doors to all the war•damaged refugees to come to Canada and other western countries sends a wrong signal to ruthless politicians around the world: that they can shoot the shit out of their countrymen and send them abroad for R&R (Rest & Resettlement) at these generous neighbours’ cost.

Good! You are doing fine. You have vented. But you have still not offered a solution.

I think that the young, educated people in Canada—descendants of those who came grabbing what little possessions they could during their hurried and often forced exit from the old country—and who have been daubed with the paintbrush of Canadian values, must assume the leadership for the persecuted minorities. They should mobilize public opinion in a positive way, for they have a good story to tell and less baggage to carry. And if a piece of land in the old country is important, they should negotiate with the home turf majority, being open to making concessions as much as they win some. And that message goes to the smug majority back home too – you may have won the arms war, but you have not won the battle for the hearts of your fellow countrymen until you say “I am sorry. Forgive me. Let’s start again. And, let’s share.”