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Mitchell: Everybody May Be Equal, But Every Opinion Is Not

The civic club speech ended, the applause faded. Members formed a line to shake the speaker’s hand, assure her how much they appreciated her words. She was inspiring. She was awesome. Everyone hoped she’d come back soon.

The last guy was different. He grasped her hand, looked her in the eye and said, “We thought you’d never shut up. That was the most boring talk we’ve endured in a long time.” He smiled and nodded, as the others had, and followed them out the door.

As the speaker was gathering up her materials, she turned to the club president and asked about that last guy. “Oh, don’t pay him any mind,” she was told. “He’s kind of a special person. We’re glad to have him in the club, but he just listens to the others in the line and repeats whatever they’ve said to each other.”

The First Amendment is marvelous in that it gives everyone, including the special member of the club, the right to express an opinion. His opinion. The opinion of others. Doesn’t matter.
Nothing should be changed about that First Amendment right.

Freedom of expression is the root of American exceptionalism. But perspective is just as important. And in this era of immediate reaction and immediate comment, perspective is often lost. Who says something is as important as what’s said.

Now football coaches and politicians are fair game. Say the final whistle blows and a fan of the losing team tweets that the “coach is an idiot to go for it on fourth and one. Should have punted.” The tweeter may never have worn a football uniform or coached any team in anything, but sports fans get leeway to speak with conviction, whether they have a clue or not. It’s not nice, but it’s OK.

Politicians are in the same bag as coaches. A comment below an online video about the presidential campaign might be, “Well, I’m not voting for Donald Trump because I think his hair is freaky.” Again, it’s OK. Anyone — even The Donald — who places a toe in the guillotine that is American electioneering should not cry foul when it gets sliced off.
Maybe journalists belong in this category, too. Nobody asked us. We stick our opinions in front of readers. Each of us comes at what we write from a different perspective. A reader reaction that a column is “liberal garbage” or “conservative trash” should not be unexpected.

The situation is different, though, for those not in the public eye.

Take “Common Core” as one example of many. Not to defend the copyrighted curriculum in the slightest or condemn it either — but what would be a guess as to the percentage of those “talking” about it who have the slightest idea of what it is or how it works?

The fact of the matter is that usually the person firing off first and worst is last and least in terms of knowledge or experience with an event or topic. But the viciousness of the forum keeps many who have informed insights on the sidelines.

Again, our much-to-be-cherished First Amendment doesn’t require anyone to have a lick of sense before opening his or her mouth.

But it’s just as true that “consider the source” is not an abstraction. The knowledge and experience on which an opinion is based is at least as relevant as the opinion itself.
Yet one-way spout-offs from the uniformed hurt because they chill use of First Amendment rights by those who might otherwise speak up, share ideas.

This state has a lot of perfectly rational, perfectly reasonable people with knowledgeable, valuable insights. Many avoid the public light. To the extent they stay mum to avoid personal attacks is the state’s loss.

Time and again people with experience and insight will say they prefer to stay out of a conversation. They don’t lack the courage of their convictions. They simply don’t cherish reaction from those who would pounce on them instead of evaluating their ideas.

Good ideas steamroll. So do bad ones. Merit gets lost in the shuffle. Without freedom of expression, America would not be America. If only we used our freedom to ignore with equal tenacity…

We’d all be better off if we improved our skills in separating the wheat from the chaff, of giving proper weight to informed, reasoned comments and simply ignoring blather.


Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at cmitchell43@yahoo.com.

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