Opinion Fatigue Syndrome is the latest disease of modern life

Thomas Sutcliffe
Thursday 31 October 1996 00:02 GMT

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


It is time to come clean. For some time now I have been suffering from a disabling condition, one that I have been able, by and large, to keep hidden from all but my closest friends. I followed this course because I felt a certain shame and a reluctance to expose myself to the pity of "normal" associates. But I have come to believe that silence serves no one, particularly not those similarly afflicted.

Where other ailments have their support networks and charities, their awareness-raisers and lobby groups, we have, as yet, nothing. So let me state boldly that I am suffering from Opinion Fatigue Syndrome. The symptoms, should you be anxious, are relatively straightforward - sufferers may discover that they are unable to hold an intellectual position for more than two minutes without shooting pains behind the eyes; some display an involuntary, fluttering droop of the eyelids when they hear the words "What do you think about ...?"; others experience giddiness and nausea when listening to Call Nick Ross.

Indeed, provisional research suggests that talk radio may be a powerful vector for the disease; I first suspected that I was a sufferer, for example, when I was rung up by a local radio station, temporarily out of stock of opinions and seeking to download some by telephone. "We're doing a discussion about X," said the researcher. "I wonder if you have an opinion on that." "I'm afraid I don't," I replied with what was then an unaccountable testiness, "and what's more I don't want to have one, either." Had I suggested that all school-age children should be issued with Baby Berettas and 200 rounds of ammunition I think she would have been less shocked. That, at least, would have been an opinion - a controversial opinion, what's more, which is gold-top stuff as far as local radio is concerned. But to flaunt my naked apositionality like that, to wallow shamelessly in my conviction deficit, was a kind of blasphemy against the very idea of the discussion programme. I was a little shocked myself.

Since then the symptoms have grown in strength. Among the hundreds of subjects on which I find myself almost incapable of holding a consistent opinion are: the effect of television violence on small children, the merits of dog licences, whether the Booker prize is good or bad for literature, and the moral necessity of recycling empty bottles. Some might argue that this disables me for my current profession - that a columnist who cannot confidently opine is as dangerous as a blind air traffic controller. To which I can only say that while a blind air traffic controller is not qualified to maintain the system, he or she may be well placed to question it. Freed from the distraction of having to ensure that jumbo jets don't collide over Hyde Park, they could ask whether all this frantic, sky-cluttering aviation is really necessary. In much the same way, my condition has forced me to question the merit of having opinions at all.

What is the real value of that great ruck of opinion formers, those ceaseless production lines churning out half-baked ideas for people to wolf down on their way home from work so that they can regurgitate them later, slightly the worse for wear after their passage through the intellectual system? ("Did I really swallow that?", you think sometimes, as some half- digested opinion about EC fisheries policy exits your mouth.) Perhaps people should have fewer opinions, not more. There is some historical backing for this: the Oxford English Dictionary's first citation for opinion is a "judgement resting on grounds insufficient for complete demonstration". Milton nicely rephrases this in Areopagitica. "Opinion in good men", he writes, "is but knowledge in the making." These days, though, opinion is no longer an intermediate station on the way to somewhere better - it is a terminus beyond which the line of reason does not run. More radical Opinion Fatigue sufferers, incidentally, have suggested we posthumously enlist Milton to the cause, in the manner of those celebrity endorsement posters for Parkinson's Disease, but I would argue that this is a peculiarly 20th-century pathology, dependent on modern media for its aetiology. In any case, the chattering classes that Milton had in mind when he wrote of "good men" were tiny compared to our burgeoning private-sector opinionate. Many of his contemporaries never encountered an opinion from one year's end to the next; they had fixed beliefs, thoughtful or not, and exchanged information. These days, the oppressive democratisation of opinion is complete - you can't even be sure of walking down the street without a vox-pop crew asking to see your intellectual papers or a pollster seeking to monitor how the latest crop is doing in the mulch of popular opinion.

Why do opinion-makers make opinions? Because we don't all have the time to make our own, and yet we mustn't be caught without them (this is shown by the boom in revision aids for the opinionately challenged - snack journalism such as The Guardian's Pass Notes). To say you have no opinion is not simply to acknowledge that you know so little about the subject that utterance would be grotesque - it is virtually to disqualify yourself from citizenship. Well, I'm not ashamed any more. Given the nature of my disability, of course, I can't guarantee that I will feel the same way next week, but right now I'm out and I'm proud

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