Opinions. And on having them.

Maybe this was only the irrational fear of a 12-year-old, the fear of not having opinions on anything. It came from this idea that I don’t have anything to say because I don’t have thoughts about them and that those non-thoughts form only non-opinions. I don’t say things because I don’t have anything to say. Without an opinion, I don’t have a stake in the conversation, in what’s being put forward as right, as legitimate, as ethical, as the way things should be in the world. I don’t have opinions on anything. This fear hung in the air for a good chunk of my teenage years.

American grade school (and into college) is a place where young people are lauded for their “participation” because this active contribution to the classroom is hailed as the way that people are heard and legitimate and intelligent. These people are the ones that move the discussion forward, that defend their arguments to others, and have influence, and what I’ve heard called “leadership” skills. To voice your opinion and your thoughts on some issue is to be worldly and to “know your stuff.” In other cultures, it’s called being rude, loud, obnoxious, and/or imposing on others. For a long time, I had trouble reconciling these two worlds.

I’ve come to realize that, back then, I was only gathering information, so-called data on truth. It is without doubt that from a young age, I had some kind of obsession with the truth. I struggled with the idea that perhaps, and probably, there is no real truth in the universe. As you can imagine, this made religion a difficult concept for me to grasp. While you could argue that I wasn’t brought up Christian enough to take certain ideas as self-evident, I’d argue that it was in my nature to be skeptical of that which could not be reasonably or definitively proven multiple times over. Rather, it was my acceptance of religion as a value to human society rather than the belief system of any one religion that answered my questions into why it should exist at all.

I had a certain way of speaking. [Some would argue that this sentence should be written in the present: I have a certain way of speaking. Perhaps.] Things had to be worthy. Statements had to be worth the effort of speech. And correspondingly worth the time spent listening to it. Hey, I’ve always been considerate. Speech had to make some worthy contribution – worthy meaning thought-provoking or relevant, adding something new. Why would you spend your time listening to and learning the same things over and over again? You wouldn’t. But perhaps this leads me to make too many assumptions about what other people would find interesting or relevant or new or of value. Maybe it is only an excuse for me to continue gathering information without making my own contribution to that data collection and its synthesis. Maybe the assumption that people see what I see given the same information is too strong. But hey, I’m learning.

This is yet another fear about which my 20-something-year-old self would be able to reassure my 12- and 15- and 17-year-old selves. I have opinions. And strong ones. I have opinions that after 20-odd years of data collection in the form of experiences, anecdotes, media consumption, diversity, culture, and (I hope) continued openness have cultivated. I have things to say and it matters that I say them. Though I remain reserved, these are opinions that I will honestly share while being conservative with who is worthy to hear them. After years of being a woman, I know well when words only fall on deaf ears.

This past month has reminded me of these past fears and more recent realizations, and really in ways that I would have gladly gone without. It reminded me that I am capable of an emotional violence in my opinions and beliefs at a very basic, fundamental level – a driving force that remains hidden if not completely smothered in the day-to-day. And it reminded me again that there is so much more truth to learn. That settling down is not an option. We must instead strive to engage and listen and contribute and find those things that are worthy. That complacency and blind trust is dangerous. And that those with all of the loud opinions may be more empty air than American reverence would make them seem.

em·pa·thy, noun

This marks the beginning of a series on empathy. Something so desperately needed today between the bombs and the borders and the bros. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while, but, as of yet, feel is not fully formed from fetus status. Regardless, I’ve committed to starting the series or I think it’ll never evolve beyond the size of a peanut with arms and legs hardly defined. Let me just lay out my beginning thoughts.

em·pa·thy noun

the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

Our differences are what makes it difficult for us to understand one another, for others to fully understand you or understand me. Why is this understanding important? This understanding becomes important if we accept the premise that humanity should aim to preserve life for all its members. That we strive for equity. That we hope to build a greater world for all of us and then some. That we should develop. That we should evolve to a higher standard. That humanity should care for one another.

There are so many instances today of the severe lack of empathy. If the history books could speak of humanity’s crimes on this front, libraries would be a horror, driving those who dared enter into madness with the constant, unwavering resonance detailing its memories of pain and cruelty and destruction. Is today that much different than the history books? How much have we progressed? Have we regressed? What does it take to treat this chronic disease?

The flood of information accessible to us today with the advent of the wonder that is the Internet magnifies our differences. It intensifies in speed and sometimes in content the information that we seek out and the information that we receive. Still, this doesn’t necessarily translate to our learning and understanding of the other. The Internet is merely a tool and medium. The Internet has made it more possible for me to encounter the hate and propaganda and rhetoric and violence with each day. It comes from politicians on television and pervades the everyday person on the street. I even catch myself.

We become unfazed. This happens. Just An Ordinary American Terrorist. Life continues. I don’t bother messaging friends to check in anymore.

We see this everyday. And all we can muster is regret.

PC

Social movements begin with an objection to the status quo, initiated by a perception that something is wrong. Rarely is it mild resistance or silent individual demonstration. Others, the critical masses, most tangibly grasp these objections when defiance is loud. That’s when they become movements, and become change, become revolutionary. When the words are strong, when you feel them, feel their force – not only the passion of their emissary, but the potency of the words themselves.

History is witness to this power, particularly that of words written. The written word molds, shapes, and reshapes history to its purposes and perspectives. The words continue beyond the time of their mediums. But the “new” perspectives, the provocative tales of what really happened, are hailed as revolutionary. This provocativeness usually comes with some lack of political correctness. They depict what was happening to the real people like you and me – the part that you and I would actually care about because that would be us. That is us.

The ideas behind historical movements or social change seem obvious today. At that time and place, they were not. In fact, they seemed wrong. They seemed outrageous. This repeated re-realization leads me to ask what’s “wrong” today. When do we know something is wrong? When are provocative ideas valid? When should we call it out? When are we allowed to? When should we strive to be politically incorrect? When should we defy loud through the written word – or otherwise?

I am the reigning queen of PC. It’s been bred into me as an Asian, and as an American – a double whammy. It’s not my place to disagree. Or if I do, I’m going to let you share your flawed perspective to your own detriment without my own comment or interjection. A commiserating nod will do.

But when is it necessary to be politically incorrect? When does this interminable effort to maintain political correctness become censorship? When does political incorrectness become a tool for constructive provocation, debate, and progress? At the far end, when do we condemn without tolerance? When should we? When do we condemn without empathy and understanding, clearly demarcating that this something is wrong? When do we force political correctness to the wayside to get to the flesh and bone of the matter? When do we reign it in? And when do we leave it at the door to make way for something else?