“People want meaningful opportunities to participate and contribute, to add their piece of information, view or opinion,” argues Charles Leadbeater in We Think. “They want viable ways to share, to think and work laterally with their peers.” But what does it mean to share, to think and to work laterally? Leadbeater’s use of the term “opinion” in this analysis of contemporary social behavior makes me want to probe more deeply into the word’s definition and its role in meaning making around the arts.
The most commonly cited dictionary definition of the word opinion (from the Latin opinari, “to mean”) refers to a view or judgment qualified by a lack of evidence; that is, an opinion is not a fact. Further, an opinion is differentiated from a theory in that the former is a feeling while the latter can be supported by evidence. If something is “a matter of opinion,” then it has a subjective quality limited by the belief system of an individual or group. In Western culture, opining is seen as a kind of birthright of democracy. Americans say that we have a “right to our opinion,” and by that we mean that we are free to choose and to express our beliefs in certain matters, regardless of who is seen to control the facts.
Other usages of the term, however, go beyond the realm of subjectivity. The formal opinion issued by a court of law is a summary of facts and applicable law used as supporting evidence for a legal decision. These opinions form the basis of the common-law system and are used as evidence in future arguments coming before the bench. In a similar manner, religious doctrine is often handed down via a system of interlinking opinions. The Talmud, for instance, is a collection of the opinions of thousands of rabbis on a range of subjects from law and ethics to history, customs, and cultural lore. As the basis for rabbinic law, these opinions hold great weight and are not understood as individual feelings but rather as links in the learned discourse that defines Judaism. In everyday life, an informed opinion signals that the opiner has crossed the feeling/fact divide and is capable of providing evidence to support his or her assertions.
The concept of public opinion—that slippery term for the aggregate of individual beliefs or attitudes held by a defined group—extends the complication over subjectivity further. What precisely is public opinion and who is in the position to define it? The nature and function of public opinion in Western culture has been the subject of ongoing theorization since Montaigne first coined the concept in the sixteenth century and Jeremy Bentham developed the first unified theory under his notion of utilitarianism (the greater happiness for the greatest number). Much of the ensuing theory has been associated with the way in which democracy is operationalized via public debate or the way in which John/Jane Q. Public’s opinions are shaped by the frames of mass media and commercial consumerism. In either context, public opinion is highly subject to the manipulation of the free market and the taste makers and other trend setters it engenders.
So how are private debates, those internal conversations we hold in order to work out our opinions for ourselves, structured? Are we the sole arbiters of our own opinions, or are the interests and attitudes that shape them also controlled by outside frames, including those constructed by consumerism and mass communication? To update Samuel Johnson’s oft-cited observation (“The majority have no other reason for their opinions other than that they are in fashion”), are our personal opinions highly subject to mass media-directed fashion?
Theorists argue both yes and no. Opinion formation in the form of taste and taste making is clearly related to the effect of authority on the process of social judgment. We process information in order to formulate our tastes or opinions, and in so doing, we assign different degrees of authority to different sources. “Source expertness” (the degree to which the source has been credentialed as an authority on the topic) and “source trustworthiness” (the degree to which the source intends to speak the truth) both affect the way in which individuals form opinions on everything from commercial products to arts events.
But recent studies of how social judgment operates complicate the matter by citing the effect that individual predispositions (which of course are themselves culturally constructed) have on opinion formation, thus questioning the absolute power of outside frames to leverage opinion. These studies find that an individual frame in thought (an individual’s cognitive understanding of a given situation), for instance, is capable of overcoming the suasion of a media frame if he or she possesses a strong prior belief or interest. Recent studies from the psychology of interest further complicates the discussion, because, according to cognitive psychologist Paul J. Silvia, interest is now understood in two ways: (1) as interest, an aspect of emotional experience; that is, a “feeling” of interest defined as a momentary motivation) and (2) as interests, a part of “personality, individual differences, and people’s idiosyncratic hobbies, goals and avocations.”
In terms of opinion formation, then, both an individual’s interest and interests play a foundational role. Our opinions could be said to represent our interest/s in life, from the political or religious beliefs we inherit from our parents to the way in which a personal interest in singing influences our support for more arts education in the public schools. For most people, a self-inventory of our opinions is also an analysis of who we are as a person (I am a liberal, I am an artist, I am a feminist) and what we have experienced in life. But, as David Bohm, author of the widely admired On Dialogue stresses, it is “important to see that the different opinions that you have are the result of past thought: all your experiences, what other people have said, and what not…Opinions thus tend to be experienced as ‘truths’ even though they may only be your own assumptions and your own back ground. You got them from your teacher, your family, or by reading, or in yet some other way. Then for one reason or another you are identified with them, and you defend them.”
In the best sense, we offer our opinions because we feel we have information to share with others that might help them, or might help society. In the worst sense, we conflate opinion with ego such that when someone disagrees with us we feel negated. The latter hurts, so much so that we are prone to what psychologists refer to as the “false-consensus effect,” a cognitive bias suggesting that people “see their own behavioral choices and judgments as relatively common and appropriate to existing circumstances while viewing alternative responses as uncommon, deviant, or inappropriate.” We tend, in other words, to overestimate how much other people agree with us just as we tend to classify our own opinions as the “normal” ones.
What does this have to do with the excellence equation I spoke of in last week’s post? The values used to interpret (and judge) a work of art are formed through social structures, such as education, and cultural traditions in the form of both inherited and acquired taste. As such, they are not stable from one group to another or from one generation to another. This includes the values used by professional gatekeepers to judge works of art. (Look, for example, at the different standards used to judge technique among ballet dancers from the mid-20th century to today.)
Excellence is, by its very nature, always changing. Excellence is always rooted in opinion, however well informed or broadly adopted that opinion may be. And it is frequently informed by conscious and unconscious biases that accompany us through life.
Those biases are the subject for next week’s post on the relationship between taste, ethnicity and social class.