“Have you been there?” “How well do you know about the place, the person, the idea…?”
These queries have beset me and, I am certain, several others in the writing and more specifically the journalistic field. It is a valid query if one is reporting from the ground. It goes without saying that when you are at the scene, then you would gather some basics by the mere fact of being there. Is this sufficient?
Often the questions are not arising out of curiosity, but to pin you down, to challenge not your knowledge but your opinion. When I had written about the Indian army, among the several responses there was one that assumed that I had never met an armyman in my life. I had, rather cockily, said that I had not met god and yet wrote about religion. In further areas I have been put on the mat for different reasons.
I would like to put myself through self-scrutiny. I do not write on subjects, even opinion pieces, of which I have no knowledge or very little. The financial area is one; technology is another; science is fascinating, so I try and understand some nuances. But, it is not possible to have first-hand knowledge about everything one opines about.
So, how does one form opinions? There are strong opinions and reasonable ones. There are opinions that are reactions or come from a strong belief. The responses to them are also opinions. We consider a viewpoint reasonable when it confirms our beliefs or when it ostensibly looks balanced.
I am mortified of balanced opinions; you can give two sides of a story but it is as you see it, not as it necessarily is. Therefore, the balance lies in sitting on the fence and watching both sides and it includes the experience of sitting on the fence and the sore-ass it causes.
A logical opinion is one where the person tries to string together the threads of disparate thought processes; it is essentially seeking to make sense of the noises in the head, but you’d never be able to tell! While we use the term loosely, ‘personal opinion’ is tautology. All opinions are personal, unless you are sponging on someone else’s views or relying on research even to form an opinion, which is the last refuge of the scrounger.
Now, there are some opinions that are considered kneejerk. As the recipient of this honorific often, I must say that such rashness is possible when you know you are entering where angels fear to tread. It is akin to a satanic rite of passage, perhaps the predecessor of the more honourable devil’s advocate that I love playing. There are certain subjects that one has internalised or understood or discussed before and what comes forth is impulsive and spontaneous, but it is also a reaction. To assume that a reaction put in words has no merit makes little sense; it springs from a strong feeling. Are feelings opinions? Indeed, they are. Belief or disbelief without emotion is mercenary. The expression of it need not be emotive, though.
So, how does one form opinions? I think conditioning plays a very minor part if you are highly individualistic. The environment is crucial not because it influences you, but it makes you respond to it for what it is and how it ought to be. In this ‘ought to be’ aspect lies one’s ability to chart a mental course. It could be a tried-and-tested formula or out-of-the-box thinking. Some people change their opinions according to what is convenient. These are chattels to the available material. However, if the alteration in perspective arises due to deep thought or disillusionment with an ideology, then it is not turn-coat behaviour.
This long but necessary preamble brings us to the queries posed to opinion-makers. There is much scientific endeavour expended on finding things from little tubes. Here, hypothesis is an opinion that is sought to be proved. An artist’s painting on canvas is an opinion of an event or an abstraction; s/he may have not been there in the first instance and it is not possible to do so in the other. A writer of fiction is expressing an opinion through the characters.
If you were to ask anyone what they think about a political event, party, figure or a film, film star or celebrities or even the person in the street, they will have something to say.
Why then is the person writing in the newspapers made answerable? I have not been to Bihar (an Indian state), just as Manmohan Singh (the Indian PM) has never contested an election. One has to have some basic knowledge, some facts, some ideas formulated in the past to reach certain conclusions. We know about poverty, about the caste system, about crimes, about feudalism, about lack of basic facilities, about the economic elitist idea, about politicians…there is a process of transposition and an understanding that conjecture is based on some edifice or precedent. We can be on different sides but the basic facts remain. How we see those facts – whether we take them at face value or bore holes into them or hang them from a pole are opinions.
One may question opinions but not the existence of them. It is like wondering about dreams, but no one can deny the existence of sleep. Of course, it is possible to argue that daydreams are more potent. But that is just my personal opinion.
And, yes, if some people think I am opinionated as hell then they must thank me for giving a sneak preview of what they too have no clue about!