The State of Opinions in America

Mike Waters

I have an opinion about the state of opinions in this country.

Put simply, opinions suffer from two very different problems: there are either too few of them, or conversely, those that exist are so ingrained that even the thought of another viewpoint could be considered sacrilege. Our society is splintered into countless groups and factions; for every Bleeding-Heart Liberal there is another Bible-Thumping Conservative, and opposed to both of those groups is the enormous cult of apathy prevalent throughout much of our country. To be fair, not everyone falls cleanly into any group, and it would be hypocritical of me to say so, but increasingly the level of discourse in our nation is characterized by a shouting match on one side and a loud chorus of yawns on the other. This has to stop.

Thomas Friedman made headlines a few months ago when he referred to our generation as “the new ‘Quiet Americans,’” asserting that collectively, we are not nearly as politically conscious and engaged as we should be. Nothing embodies better this side of the opinions spectrum than Friedman’s assessment. Huge percentages of our population are willingly ignorant about the important issues of our day. From the ever-declining voter turnout rates during elections to the wide range of people who proudly label themselves “apathetic” in their Facebook profiles, this dearth of strong ideas is felt across our entire country. Numerous criteria could be to blame. Perhaps it is the legions of baby boomers fed up with the empty ideology of the Vietnam War, the Reagan Years, and the continued functioning of the greed economy, or maybe it is more reflective of changes in our society. Particularly relevant to our age group, perhaps our general apathy towards the world is caused by the increasing amount of time we all spend glued to our computers – a cause Friedman explicitly mentioned. Are sites like Facebook and Myspace inflating our own sense of our importance to the detriment of the greater good? Or is it merely that with the exponential efficiency and wealth of information on the Internet other issues fade to the back? Regardless of the causes of our ideological drain, it is something that needs to be remedied. How far we go in reengaging ourselves in critical thought, however, is something that needs to be considered.

In an article in a previous issue of The Atlantic Monthly, Andrew Sullivan mentioned an opposite problem to our national apathy. His description of the United States’ “nonviolent civil war” – over culture, over religion, and over race – is emblematic of the other end of the spectrum of opinions in this country. Standing in stark opposition to the apathy of the general public – and in stark opposition to pretty much anything, for that matter – is the ongoing feud between various factions of US society. Whether it is in battles of Left vs. Right, Black vs. White, or The People vs. The Man, the past several decades of thought in the US have been fractured like no other. Various ideologies have been replaying a rhetorical World War One, all sitting miserable in their trenches and lobbing attacks into the dangerous middle ground. In US society, as in WWI, to find oneself standing somewhere in the middle of the two sides is to find oneself staring down the barrels of two well-equipped armies and shit-out-of-luck. One need only think back to the 2004 Presidential Election for an example of this: ultimately, what ended up being the bigger fault, President Bush’s abysmal personal and political record or John Kerry’s flip-flopping? Now, by no means do I mean to stand up for John Kerry (though I do mean to lambaste President Bush), but the attacks on his character show how far intelligent debate has fallen in this country. I can simply turn on the television for a glimpse of this fact and see the nameless partisan hacks tearing each other a new one on national television. This year’s presidential election has already seen more than its fair share of ridiculous debate – and this from people who are supposed to agree with each other. Whether this type of debate is supposed to qualify as “news” or just “entertainment” is nebulous, but there is no question that there are millions of Americans out there aligning themselves this way. And do not think I leave you out of that category, you superior Middlebury College students, because whether you’re a Wall Street bound economics major or a member of the Sunday Night Group set, your opinions may often be as unflinching as those of the political figures you despise. It’s time we all took a look in the mirror – or better yet, a look over the other side – to see the “opposition” we all refuse to legitimize.

Many of you may feel this call-to-action is unnecessary at Middlebury. To use two tired clichés, while I may be “preaching to the choir,” there is also a distinct chance that this will “fall on deaf ears.” Surely our campus is marked by countless intelligent, reasonable individuals who pride themselves on their level of political literacy, but there are also others who couldn’t care less or are even proud of their ignorance. Even the opinions in this publication sometimes prove my point; either outlandish and controversial or timid to the point of irrelevance, the opinions in this magazine often do nothing to improve the level of discourse. As a society, but more importantly as individuals, I feel that we are sacrificing one of our greatest gifts. Regardless of our backgrounds or the positive or negative turns our lives may have taken, one thing we all possess to an equal degree is the ability to think for ourselves. What are we without what we care about? In many ways it is our opinions that define us, and without taking the time to truly consider what matters we forfeit much of our relevance and importance. We should all make it our duty to care about something – not just politics, for there are far more important things in the world (far, far more) – and not to the extent that we abandon our ability to reason logically and consider all viewpoints.

As I anticipate the reception for this article, I foresee it being labeled excessively heavy-handed or just completely unnecessary. Do I really expect to change anyone’s mind, or even open it, for that matter? No. However, I do hope that maybe we all can reconsider our opinions and take some time out of our busy days doing homework and updating our Facebook profiles to acknowledge that there are things out there that matter. We should all avoid letting ourselves be passed over in the writing of the future.

Whether we care to take active engagement in the direction of our own lives and the direction of our country is up to us. I know that I do.

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