We have a sense for comments on the internet that are thoughtless and annoying. This does not affect our opinion. But when someone has good arguments and takes other opinions into account we may switch. At least that’s what we like to think.
In the real world switching opinions is subject to a lot of other forces than good arguments alone. Sometimes not the opinions are annoying, but the forces behind those opinions.
It’s hard to shield yourself from these forces as they often operate underwater and influence you unconsciously. The sum of opinions is like an iceberg. It’s not completely visible, but suddenly it can flip:
This iceberg is made up of all kind of personal opinions. When a lot of personal opinions flip, at the end the whole iceberg flips. But sometimes it’s a mystery why this can happen.
Participate in the debate
Current debates on Covid-19, BLM and Climate change reveal how these mechanisms work. They show that there is a very little room for doubt and making small adjustments to your opinion. Everything is immediately polarized. Everything is black or white. Either you are political correct or you are not.
Often voices on the top of the iceberg are shouting political correct phrases. Then under the iceberg there are the rest of the opinions. Most are quiet, but sometimes you hear an opposing voice from the depths of the sea. If enough of these opinions climb on the iceberg, the iceberg might flip. But often this doesn’t happen as most voices stay silent.
In the Corona debate I was mostly silent myself. I’m not ashamed to say that I often needed to adjust my opinions. I was often wrong about how things went. At first, I thought that the virus was similar to SARS, and that it wouldn’t reach countries outside of China. Currently, China has 85 thousand confirmed cases, the rest of the world 37 million. I was slightly wrong…
When the Corona really arrived in the Netherlands I thought at first “Let it happen and quickly get over it. Just like the flu”. Soon things we’re getting out of hand, and I was glad that the government intervened. It was the lack of hard data and lack of knowledge that made it difficult to make up my mind. It wasn’t until I read an in depth article of a virologist that I gained some insight.
Reasoning from own perspective
I never felt my opinion was firm enough to share it. Every time I felt disillusioned by my own way of reasoning. For example, it’s easy to conclude something from own experience. Say Covid-19 doesn’t exist, because you don’t know anyone who has Covid-19.
To this day, I don’t know anyone who has had Covid-19. Though I did feel all the measures at every place that were taken against the virus. The world is however so populated that it is impossible to make this a valid argument. Maybe I was just lucky or maybe I followed the rules too strict. There are now more than 170 thousand confirmed cases in the Netherlands, but the country also has 17 millions citizens. This means that only 1% of the population had Corona confirmed.
It’s easy to conclude from personal experience that the virus is not dangerous or real. Of course Boris Johnson made that mistake and it nearly killed him. It’s interesting that these things make me careful and keep my opinion to myself, while the prime minister of England did not and it had almost catastrophic consequences.
Should we listen only to experts?
So should we only listen to experts? Surely not, I noticed that most virologists don’t want to be blamed for any deaths and that they are always on the ‘safe side’ of life. They are asked for their scientific and medical points of view, but they are not psychologists, economists or politicians.
Debates are often black and white. Lives are for sure very important, but so does social contacts, jobs and freedom to move. That’s why Swedish virologist (whether his policy is right or wrong) should at least get some credit to take responsibility not only for lives, but for society as a whole.
Such opinions are heavily demonized. If you bring up social or economic sides, it means that you don’t care about life. In the Netherlands there was the action #ikdoetnietmeermee (I don’t participate anymore). This action was created by several young social influencers and artists. Though in general the action was misplaced they also brought up some good points and expressed feelings that were playing out in society. Soon they were ridiculed on Twitter and in the media.
It wasn’t until Diederik Gommers, doctor and chairman of the Dutch Association for Intensive Care, met with Famke Louise, one of the campaigners, that things changed. He didn’t ridicule her, and she admitted she was wrong. A deep conversation between the two started, which brought more insight on both sides.
They talked with each other every day on the phone the rest of the week. Famke Louise visited the intensive care in Rotterdam, and he created an own Instagram account to reach younger people.
I didn’t share my thoughts on Corona or BLM, but I am glad a lot of people did. In these debates I followed the comments on the biggest news site in the Netherlands nu.nl. Surely there are a lot of comments based on feelings and totally nonsensical, but there were also a lot of insightful, well-expressed and well-balanced opinions.
It’s interesting when people dare to give such opinions and when it flips. When Corona first got to its peak in March it was only accepted to say that people should follow the rules. All other opinions were ridiculed and downplayed as egoistic. People with alternative opinions “didn’t care about life”, the commenters said.
When the numbers went down it suddenly flipped. People who first were quiet had now the accepted opinion. “We need to go on with our lives, most policies are not effective or make sense”, is what they said. When the second wave came, it flipped again.
Political correctness points
In a lot of debates a lot of o people want to score political correctness points. They are just confirming the accepted opinions.
This is best illustrated at the hand of Joe Exotic. The main character from the Netflix documentary, Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness. He has been seen as a charismatic and eccentric figure. He had two husbands, lots of friends, business partners and employees. Most of the things happened in the documentary were unacceptable, but for many years he could continue his practices and the surrounding people supported him.
Only when Joe was suspected of breaking the law and was followed by the FBI then everybody was turning against him. As quoted in the documentary there is either the choice between “camp Joe” or “camp FBI”. But what about a balanced view?
These two camps can also be seen online, in the reviews on IMDB. You either say it’s a terrific show with a score of 9 and 10. Those people find the documentary astonishing and vivacious. On the other side people give the documentary a 1 or 2. Don’t understand the hype and are outraged that Netflix gives a platform for such people. A balanced view on the integrity and craftsmanship of the documentary and the content of the documentary is seldom given.
In public debates it feels like there are two magnets on either side. Political correctness is held on one side, but when it crosses the line it suddenly flips over to the other side. Where is this boundary? Who are the magnets? And can we escape it?
The boundary is a social construct which is held by beliefs, media and laws. The documentary Tiger King showed how big cats are being exploited. Not a lot has been done about these practices for many years. Joe Exotic could work with the cats for many years as long as he stayed on one side of the boundary. Public opinion was on his side. When he however passed the line the media was totally against him. Public opinion flipped to the other side. Maybe keeping exotic animals will be forbidden or restricted. But why did it take so long? Why the sudden switch?
Partly opinions are changing because of immediate threats and media attention. Viruses have long been a problem in countries within Africa. A warning was given by experts and by people who funded those experts like Bill Gates that it could affect the whole world. But it stayed under the iceberg.
In the coming years there will be better plans for coping with a virus, also a lot of research will be done and lot money will be spent. Why does it take a crisis to flip the iceberg? What about all the things they would be on news if Corona wasn’t there? Would they not happen? Will our blind spot for those things not be a problem for tomorrow? Shouldn’t we give more room to those quiet voices under the iceberg?