Mouthing off in America

You think too much. And you’re not alone. Everybody’s thinking too much. We live in an era in which it is important to have opinions. Not necessarily smart or original ones; almost any opinion will do as long as it’s forcefully expressed. When it comes to opinions, we’re all living in an intellectual Costco, where it’s volume, volume, volume.

It wasn’t that long ago that opinions were something carefully considered and weighed, so that they’d stand the test of time and reflect well on the author. Thinkers were like gourmet chefs laboring over an elaborate meal they wanted to be perfect. But today, opinions are Big Macs — thrown together hastily, served by the billions and not very good for you.

You probably don’t want to have as many opinions as you have. But everyone around you has them. There’s cable news, of course. Keith Olbermann and Glenn Beck each have plenty of opinions.

When you sell opinions for money, the way Keith and Glenn do, it doesn’t take you long to catch on that the more opinions you have, the more money you make. So, like radish farmers who grow more radishes in order to get rich, Keith and Glenn create dozens of new opinions per night.

But here’s the problem: They’re not very smart opinions. And they’re forcing everyone around them, including you, to also have far too many opinions. We post them on Facebook; we tweet them; we express them in comments on Huffington Post. We’ve become junior-grade cable goons — but paid much less.


We get angry too, just like Keith and Glenn. What’s the point in having an opinion if it’s not an angry opinion? If something upsets us — like a member of Congress and a bunch of innocent bystanders being shot in Tucson — we don’t mourn, we fulminate. We assign blame. Or we deflect blame — angrily.

It’s hard to find the good guys when one side is self-righteously accusing the other side of lacking civility as if that were any more likely to spark violence than movies or video games, and the response is, weirdly, to defend a lack of civility as if it’s a good thing.

Opinion inflation has invaded every aspect of our lives. It causes us to post our opinions about our dry cleaner on Yelp. Did you used to have an opinion about your dry cleaner, or was he just sort of there, like a shrub or a parking meter?

Did you even notice what George W. Bush wore on his feet? Probably not, but half the country wanted to weigh in on President Obama’s wearing of flip-flops to the beach.

If the Gap or Starbucks changed their logos a few years ago, would you have noticed? And more important, would you have run to Facebook (if it had existed) to cast your vote for the old Gap logo, as if it had always been a meaningful part of your life?

The Internet is a Petri dish of opinion inflation, breeding commentary like bacteria. Because few people do anything interesting or have anything factual to report, they toss off a short opinion. That, in turn, leads to opinion hyperinflation; just look at the comments sections on any blog. Opinions quickly devolve from Big Macs into rat poison. Civility makes only a rare appearance, and facts are no longer facts. Evolution, climate change, gravity — it’s all one point of view against another. Everyone gets a vote, even the people who aren’t particularly sane.

There was a time when thoughtful people tried to be balanced. The old-style political columnists were famous for saying nothing. The presented both sides of any given issue in an “on the one hand/on the other” fashion, pretty much allowing readers to form their own opinions, which — lacking proper guidance — readers rarely did. Walter Cronkite voiced so few opinions that when he uttered one — about the Vietnam War — it changed the course of history.

Of course, those days were boring. Today’s onslaught of nonstop commentary everywhere you look is significantly more entertaining. Walter Lippmann was boring; Arianna Huffington is not. Eric Sevareid could put you to sleep faster than Ambien; Sean Hannity is a shot of double espresso (with the new, not the old, Starbucks logo).

Now we’re hooked. We don’t go to a new restaurant to eat a meal; we go there to dissect it and then tweet about it. We can’t post a link to an article without giving it some sort of grade. We criticize the music we listen to and the TV we watch. Awards shows have been reduced to weird Joan Rivers screeds about what celebrities are wearing on the red carpet. Each dress has to be deconstructed by a panel of experts and found wanting.

It’s all turning us into surly teenagers who disagree with everything.

There’s a certain irony, I realize, to expressing an opinion about opinions. And perhaps I should be grateful. Not only am I more entertained these days, but when I’m feeling lazy, I can switch from thinking too much to not thinking at all. I am so surrounded by opinions that I don’t need any of my own. I can turn on Fox or MSNBC and adopt an entire political philosophy without knowing a thing.

Of course, the problem is that when I share that philosophy, I don’t sound intelligent, I sound like a drunk at a bar arguing with an empty barstool.

On his old HBO show, Dennis Miller used to end his trademark rants with, “Of course, that’s just my opinion. I could be wrong.”

He was right. I could be wrong too. But he was also way too opinionated.

Stephen Randall is the deputy editor of Playboy.