By Asfar Alim (18S03J)
To say or not to say? That is the question. Do I risk contributing my idea for a project, even though it could get shot down immediately? Should I tell my good friend that their questionable decisions (such as playing Dota for 8 hours straight) may not be a good idea? Or perhaps, there’s the fear of asking a question on a sensitive topic. These are just a few examples of the situations that we may have encountered where we would have to decide whether we should be honest and share our thoughts or keep quiet. In these scenarios, we meet different types of people who apply different approaches.
Everybody knows that one person in our class or CCA who is incredibly vocal, not afraid to speak their mind. They always find a reason to disagree with your opinion in a group discussion, passionately share their thoughts on why the patriarchy must fall, or expound on why they believe our education system is a sham. Regardless of how controversial some these opinions may be, such as the belief in Flat-Earthism, these people prioritise honesty and are forthcoming with such opinions. Their approach is simple: Try not to think too much about it. “It’s much better to just be honest about how I feel, rather than keeping quiet and wondering what might have gone differently had I said this,” is a common sentiment they may share. It is likely that these people do understand the potential backlash or ridicule they could receive when they share such ideas, but this all seems inconsequential compared to what may happen if they passively accept other people’s opinions. This would include being dragged along with an idea they have no interest in, or wondering how events could have changed if they had indeed spoke their mind.
As seen above, however, these opinions range in varying degrees of audacity, and some may not know where to draw the line on the types of opinions or ideas they share. In a diverse and relatively conservative society like Singapore, sharing thoughts on historically sensitive topics such as race, religion, or sexuality is a surefire way to offend a large group of people. The more comfortable someone is with sharing their honest thoughts, the more likely he or she is to cause offense. As a result, such people risk being alienated by the majority.
In addition, an incredibly vocal person could also exude a sense of arrogance by giving the impression that their opinions are more important than others’, and that others’ feelings do not matter. This would cause them to be disliked.
It is perhaps this fear of being alienated that impels many people to adopt a policy of guardedness. They may not be as forthcoming with their ideas, and if they hold an opinion that the majority would disagree with, they would rather keep it to themselves.
“I have a thousand things to say to you, and a thousand reasons not to.” — Rachel Wolchin, thegoodvibe.co
This policy of guardedness is often known as “self-censorship”. Self-censorship is a phenomenon where people regulate their own discourse with their judgement, usually based on the norms of society, especially to avoid criticism. Self-censorship becomes particularly relevant, and poses a challenge, for content creators such as bloggers, or news outlets (even Word of Mouth). As the conduit of raw information and ideas from the larger world to their readers and communities, the above groups have the most power in providing their own interpretations and opinions of current events and sharing this interpretation to others. Take the changes in income inequality in Singapore as an example. Rather than just reciting the facts and statistics about this issue, bloggers or commentary writers may want to add their own thoughts on this piece of news, or if more can be done about this issue and which groups of people should be responsible for enacting this.
Due to self-censorship, content creators and media reporters may end up feeling obligated to ensure the opinions they share offend as few people as possible, lest they face public backlash. In addition, in an age where anything we say can be recorded easily and cannot be erased, the opinions we share, or may have shared in the past, can be used against us. These opinions may end up following a person for life, so sharing opinions that are controversial could be detrimental. Such groups and individuals could risk having the authorities knocking on their doors if the views shared can be interpreted to be a threat to societal order and harmony.
Despite this, the sharing of opinions should not be heavily stifled. There exist countless opinions that most people disagreed with in the past, but which are widely accepted today. Take, for example, the struggle of many scientists in ancient times as they came up with hypotheses that were almost inconceivable at the time, but which they were able to substantiate after many experiments. Aristarchus of Samos was one scientist who faced disapproval from many people for proposing the hypothesis that our solar system was heliocentric – that is, that all the planets in our solar system revolve around the Sun, as opposed to the Earth. However, his ideas were eventually accepted centuries later and became the basis for many other scientific theories, such as planetary motions and gravity. These theories could never have come about if such ideas were not initially embraced, and when they were left open for fine-tuning, their ideas have become widely accepted.
Science is not the only field that has benefited from the ability to voice opinions. As more people argue for social change, inevitably, the social zeitgeist begins to shift. Although opinions regarding LGBT rights are rather controversial and offend many people with a more traditional mindset, it did not stop groups who believed in equality to champion for their rights. It is perhaps this persistent effort from these groups to get their voice heard that caused a shift in attitudes towards same-sex relationships and allowed more countries to adjust laws catering to LGBT groups, such as the legalisation of same-sex marriages in Australia, Malta and Germany in 2017. Likewise, many other societies face other socioeconomic issues such as the lack of opportunities for women to be educated, or laws which are not favourable for single parents. If people could go beyond their fear of being judged and voice their opinions, more people may follow suit, and society can perhaps move forward and evolve in a positive direction.
The consequences of not speaking up are grave, and every citizen should be concerned about them. No matter how insignificant you feel their voice may be, your voice can ultimately act as a catalyst for inducing change in other people’s opinions or actions. Even in the scenario where a majority does not agree with one’s opinion, discourse over the issue can be generated and both sides can be given an opportunity to navigate their differences. As long as one knows when to back down, a positive discussion can happen. However, opting to simply remain silent results in attitudes becoming entrenched in society, which impacts a society’s ability to think critically and respect opinions that differ from the norm, both of which are both required to enact positive change.
The ability to know when to voice opinions and engage in discourse is where critical thinking comes in, as it allows people to evaluate other people’s actions and its impacts on different groups of people on a deeper level. When more people become unwilling to share opinions and engage with new ideas, they lose the opportunity to examine issues critically, and being unable to practice such a valuable skill can be detrimental to the development of a society in the long run.
In additional to social impacts, self-censorship has personal impacts as well. Being guarded about opinions can affect how effectively we interact with people, and this is because of how closely tied sharing opinions are with having conversations and building trust. Research has shown that there are 3 levels of conversation a person can access. The rudimentary level would be Informational Conversation, which merely consists of the exchange of facts or information. These types of conversations do not result in gaining trust. It is the second level, Positional Conversation, that builds trust. At this level, people would feel comfortable sharing their own opinions and inquiring about other perspectives. When this is done respectfully, it results in peers developing a greater sense of trust and are a greater willingness to cooperate. This paves the way to level 3: Relational Conversation, where empathy develops and meaningful relationships bud.
Considering how interlinked sharing opinions are with increasing trust levels, those who remain less willing to share opinions may be stuck at the first level of conversation, which hardly helps in building trust and creating meaningful relationships. In a way, opinions are what define us and give others a glimpse of our identity. It would be much more difficult to have insightful conversations or trust people further if they themselves are unwilling to put themselves out there and share their opinions. Hence, this ends up squandering the ability for meaningful human interaction.
On the flipside, there are issues which clearly cross the boundaries of acceptable speech, such as hate speech and threats of violence. These types of ideas seek to attack individuals based on their race and religion, or spread malicious falsehoods. One notorious example would be when Amy Cheong, the former assistant director of membership at the National Trade Union Congress (NTUC), posted a racist comment on FaceBook in 2012, causing her to receive severe backlash from the public. She was eventually removed from her position at NTUC due to her comment.
Hate speech and violent comments should never be confused with earnest attempts to communicate and, naturally, should not be given as much consideration as opinions that seek to build up or offer constructive criticism. It is up to everybody to be responsible when sharing opinions by having a clear intent on what they wish to achieve by sharing their opinion and by anticipating the consequences of sharing it.
At the end of the day, the issue of what exactly constitutes opinions that are worth sharing have many nuances that can be argued about over eternity, and this is not entirely relevant to us in the short run. What most of us should be concerned about is how much weight we give to our own opinions. If we sincerely believe that our opinions matter to us and are relevant to the current context, there should be no problem sharing them when the time calls for it.
Of course, ensuring that our opinions do not offend people and result in more harm than good will always be a challenge. Therefore, it is crucial that we have tact when maintaining the balance between standing our ground with our opinions while not being offensive. We may end up making errors or inciting disapproval, but with every attempt to bring useful opinions forward, we may get better at maintaining the balance.
No matter what approach we take the next time we need to contribute ideas to a group, or to a friend, it would be good to remember how we want to be remembered in a few years time before we make the decision to say, or not to say.