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The Value and Responsibility of Questioning Popular Opinion

Over two thousand years ago, the philosopher Socrates used to walk the streets of Athens subtly encouraging people to think outside the majority's opinion. In a friendly manner, he would probe their thoughts and opinions with questions. Simple questions, like ‘Why are you saying that?’, ‘How do you know this?’ or ‘Why is this happening?’, encouraged them to explain their beliefs. Socrates believed that ‘The unexamined life is not worth living’ and in his non-confrontational approach, he subtly exposed the ignorance of people who could not explain or support their opinions. Despite the simplicity of asking a question, this became a radical act and stirred the community to such an effect that in 399 BC, Socrates was charged with impiety against the gods of Athens and corruption of youth, and was sentenced to death.

Thousands of years later, in an online world where one opinion can reach millions, the majority can be easily influenced by content that may not be correct or fair. One opinion, mindlessly shared, can soon become the majority’s opinion. These are voiced everywhere, from coffee shops, to pubs, to family get-togethers and usually entail the same topics. Negative discussions that disregard LGBTQ+ rights, Black Lives Matter, the immigration and climate crises may lead us to wonder just how many reliable sources of information those who are speaking have read before stating shared opinion as fact. Of course, it isn't only online that this happens, for the world has worked this way for years. With politically biased journalism using sensationalist headlines to intentionally cause fearmongering, and individuals spreading their personal, unresearched opinion, it can be difficult to have a fair understanding of a subject. Therefore, the majority’s voice can be the product of repetition without thought, of recycled opinions without any question of accuracy or fairness. And although a person can be very informed by doing research, if they only read information that supports their point, then it is still biased. Socrates’ method of questioning an opinion (and questioning sources) may be a responsible tool today to halt the proliferation of misinformation and misunderstanding.

With social media propelling freedom of speech to a worldwide scale, more than ever people’s varying opinions are being expressed. The mass of conflicting views can create concerningly hostile atmospheres online and individuals are sometimes bullied if their opinion disagrees with a majority’s voice. A prevalent example of this is Cancel culture, which is the mass criticism of an individual (usually a celebrity) for doing/saying something that the public disagrees with. This torrent of criticism, while sometimes justified in situations where an actual crime has been committed, doesn’t allow individuals, such as those from a different generation, to reflect on change and alter their opinions, but instead forces them to retreat further into their own mindset, however misguided or out-dated that may be. If, like Socrates, we carefully encourage a person to question their beliefs, then they are perhaps more likely to listen to others, understand and perhaps change their point of view.

Asking questions is like holding up a mirror to a person. By responding with an open question, there is neither agreement nor disagreement, but rather, an invitation for conversation to be clarified and deepened. If they cannot do this, then perhaps their argument is flawed and more education about the topic is needed before they can debate. Freedom of speech comes with the responsibility to explain a point of view and debate it, without personal attack, while knowing that there is always room for opinions to change and the possibility that even an informed opinion can be challenged. Socrates encouraged people to think outside of the majority consensus and his questions caused offence because they presented new ideas and pushed people to think beyond the comfort zone of age-old beliefs. Perhaps social media would improve if users were open minded to opinions that differ to their own and acknowledge that their view may not be the only possibility. If a person is well informed, they may confidently and appropriately lead others to debate.

While social media offers a platform for freedom of speech, not all users possess the ability to explain their opinions in a sensible debate and the distinctions between a healthy debate and a heated argument are blurred. Therefore, people who dare to question either the majority or the individual are often verbally attacked and silenced. Perhaps there are lessons from Socrates’ methods that can still be applied today to improve the way that we share and take on opinions- not just online, but in the real world as well. With open-minded debate based on questioning, those who don’t understand certain issues can learn without embarrassment and we can all learn to accept nuanced ideas.

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