Taylor: Stop obsessing, opining

Implicitly, a newspaper endorses the idea that news is worthy of your time, just as an opinion page — again, implicitly — endorses the notion that opinions are significant. It stands to reason that every now and then, if only for the sake of ruffling our presuppositional complacency, someone should counter these ideas. I will do so here, in the newspaper, on the opinion page.

News is an addiction like cigarettes or alcohol, except it doesn’t lead to gingivitis and doesn’t — in most cases — leave you stumbling down the street in bacchanalian rapture (Super Tuesday being a conceivable exception). Especially at Yale, where free newspapers abound, where you’re expected to be savvy and up to date, there is the constant pressure to find out what’s going down in D.C., what’s happening in Hong Kong, what’s kicking in Cairo.

Listen: Give it up. Or at least relax a bit. Cairo can get by without you. So can the House, and the Senate, and President Obama. In fact, they do get by without you. Your influence on them is nil. Even if you write them a letter, even if you write them a thousand letters, your influence on them (call me cynical) is negligible to nil. You elected them, fine. But not really. Truth be told, they’d be in office with or without your vote. And, more to the point, they’d be in office with or without your nagging, numbing, ultimately futile addiction to the news.

Thoreau said the news is gossip, and those who read it are “old women over their tea.” I find this a little unjust toward the old women; their gossip, at least, concerns people with whom they are acquainted. But, in any case, what’s wrong with gossip? What’s wrong with a little harmless hearsay to pass the time? Not terribly much, perhaps. But when gossip is passed off as intellectual activity, when gossip pervades the talk of students and casts itself as intelligent conversation — as is the case with news — there is a problem, and a serious one. Human lives go by in the shadows of a cave.

Real life happens at home, on a campus, in a church, in a park. It happens in quiet reflection, honest conversation, earnest reading. This is the shaping and building up of souls. Abstracted participation in faraway goings-on is a diversion from real life. Granted, diversions can be good, and they may be necessary. But go throw a baseball, fly a kite — there are better diversions than the news.

News comes to us in bits and pieces, sound bites, staged interviews, half-stories devoid of context. It’s a matter of facts, and facts aplenty it can boast. But it’s not a matter of truth. Truth is one, and getting at truth means grasping the whole, seeing all aspects, rummaging the depths of the real. Even if you couple your New York Times with the National Review, even if you tune in to CNN on top of Fox News, you will not arrive at truth. At best you will attain a more informed, better-considered opinion.

Our nation is saturated with opinions. We’re drowning in them. Everyone’s got a blog or a book deal. And in the blaring noise of ubiquitous opinion we’ve forgotten how low a place opinion occupies on the epistemological spectrum. Our ancestors strove for something higher. Namely, knowledge.

Underlying our fixation with opinion, perhaps, is the lurking conviction that knowledge is impossible in the age of Heisenberg and Gödel, Freud and Foucault. But the possibility of knowledge has always been in doubt. Our iconic philosopher died knowing only that he knew nothing. In this, though, he knew a great deal. What is more, in spending his days dispensing with opinion and seeking only knowledge of the truth, he led a rich and worthy life.

Such a life can be lived in our day. Indeed, there is no better time to live it than in college, before the business of “making a living” gets underway. And there’s hardly a better place than Yale for seeking veritas under the illumination of lux.

In the name of moderation and general anti-ridiculousness, I’ll concede that it may be beneficial to be informed, now and then, as to the latest shenanigans of the politicians. The health care debate, for instance. Politicians should be responsible to the public, etc., etc. And of course, on our campus, there are future members of Congress and probably future presidents, and it may be excusable for them to pay obsessive attention to the farce in which they will someday star.

To the others among you I say: Put down your newspaper, and go pick up something by Plato. Opinions come easy. Deep down, only the truth will satisfy.

That, anyway, is my opinion!

Bryce Taylor is a junior in Silliman College.


  • BR’10

    Wait…Plato holds truth? Since when?!

    Seriously – the whole ‘oh my goshers, only the old knowledgeable men had any access to truth, this society with its pluralism is petty’ has always struck me as…’ugh, the good old days, when everybody knew their place and truth was a way to bring attention to this place.’

    Anyway, have fun trying to get people to read Plato. I’ll be reading health care bills.

  • PC’10

    BR’10, you have evidently never read any Plato. At all. And your writing is indicative of just the problem the writer was referring to.

    Master Smith would be ashamed.

  • BR 2010

    Part of the problem is the changing concept of what constitutes an “opinion.” An archaic definition of the word holds that an opinion is a kind of knowledge: an interpretation of what is likely to be the case based on certain established truths—not too different from the kind of knowledge found in Plato’s dialogues. Now, in common parlance, “opinion” seems to be synonymous with “belief,” and so it follows that in order to respect the opinions of anyone who crosses our path, we must lend the same kind of credence to delusion as we lend to truth. Certainly problematic, but not really a reason to argue that knowing what other people are saying isn’t important.

    The study of philosophy is healthy, not because it leads to knowledge, but because it increases one’s comfort with the sensation of doubt. Those who believe that philosophy leads to truth are those who are doomed, as Milton put it, to wander mazes lost.

  • BR’10

    Done the Plato thing in 3 classes at Yale that were not DS. Really – just because I don’t find him a particularly enlightening figure doesn’t mean you do, but it certainly didn’t reveal truth as commonly defined.

    If our futile attempt to do something with healthcare is somewhat illogical, so is the expectation that the answer is to remove yourself to the realm of philosophy.

    Though BR 2010 gave you an answer that is in your style of discussion.