In an interview about their intriguing sounding new book, Inventing Peace, the acclaimed German film-maker Wim Wenders (of "Wings of Desire" fame) and the Australian philosopher Mary Zournazi, opined that "An opinion is a violent act very often."
To his credit, Wenders does qualify his claim with the "very often" phrase. And sometimes closed-minded opinions can be considered violent. But I fear that too many people who want to seek peace, including some of the students I teach (from the middle school to the college level), avoid expressing opinions almost as if it's a principle.
I've got an extended opinion about opinions.
I appreciate what I think Wenders and Zournazi might be trying to say about how, when we listen to someone and formulate an opinion about what they're saying too quickly, especially a negative opinion, we too often stop listening for understanding and start listening merely to rebut. I think this kind of opinion-taking, which I was trained in as a debater, too often does close off constructive dialogue and impedes both a genuine connection between people and valuable opportunities for fruitful disagreements to lead to insights, the transformation of conflict, or even shared wisdom.
In other words, yes, sometimes the formulation of our opinions closes us off from listening to and learning from others. This is the wonder of the writing teacher Peter Elbow's Believing Game, in which he asks us to learn to listen for what we can affirm and value in someone else's words, especially when listening to opinions with which, or people with whom, we tend to disagree.
At the same time, in order to engage in fruitful transformative dialogue, it is important to bring our own perceptions, share our feelings, contribute our thoughts, and yes, formulate and communicate our opinions. At our best, we can strive to express our opinions, not as judgements from on high, not as fixed stars in our intellectual universe, but as hypotheses to be shared, tested, adjusted, transformed, and/or discarded.
One insight I take from Gandhi and other theorists and practitioners of nonviolence is a synthesis of the dilemma between violent action and passive inaction. When we perceive injustice, when we feel outrage (yes, this requires formulating an opinion), we need to value that outrage and use it to fuel our actions to change the systems that generate suffering. I'm guessing, in the unease with and opposition to opinions expressed in the interview above, there is an unease with anger. Feminists Barbara Deming and Audre Lorde write beautifully about the sense of discomfort we often feel in the face of our own and others anger. They write of the need, not to deny or suppress anger, not to avoid expressing opinions with our full strength, but to honor our sense of outrage and use it to fuel nonviolent social change.
Barbara Deming wrote, in her 1971 essay/speech, On Anger:
I think there is clearly a kind of anger that is healthy. It is theGandhi knew he often changed his mind. What if he took violent action for a cause he later believed was unjust? There is no revoking murder, certainly not for the murdered. And yet, when injustice is being inflicted, trying to suppress opinions in the name of avoiding violence is to allow the violence of the unjust status quo to continue unchallenged. Taking nonviolent action allows us to simultaneously express our opinions, take action to work for justice as comprehensively as we can currently conceive it, and create space for real dialogue with opponents.
concentration of one’s whole being in the determination: this must
This kind of anger is not in itself violent—even when it raises its
voice (which it sometimes does); and brings about agitation,
confrontation (which it always does). It contains both respect for
oneself and respect for the other. To oneself it says: “I must
change—for I have been playing the part of the slave.” To the other it
says: “You must change—for you have been playing the part of the
tyrant.” It contains the conviction that change is possible— for both
sides; and it is capable of transmitting this conviction to others,
touching them with the energy of it—even one’s antagonist. This is the
anger the sister who wrote me that first letter speaks of: It
It is worth quoting Martin Luther King, in Letter from a Birmingham Jail, at length on this topic:
You may well ask: "Why direct action? Why sit-ins,Yes, expressing opinions, and acting on our convictions, can create tension. Let's embrace fostering the creative tension necessary for social change by attempting to express our opinions honestly and openly. This kind of opinion-assertion lies at the heart of nonviolence, not violence.
marches and so forth? Isn't negotiation a better path?" You are quite
right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of
direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis
and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused
to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to so dramatize
the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of
tension as part of the work of the nonviolent-resister may sound rather
But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension."
I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of
constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.
The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.
In order to make peace, As Audre Lorde wrote, in her beautiful essay, from Sister Outsider, "The Uses of Anger," (pdf) we need to utilize our anger to "pollinate difference" in the service of liberation:
... [I]t is not the anger of Black women which is dripping down over this globe like a diseased liquid. It is not my anger that launches rockets, spends over sixty thousand dollars a second on missiles and other agents of war and death, slaughters children in our cities, stockpiles nerve gas and chemical bombs, sodomizes our daughters and our earth.
It is not the anger of Black women which corrodes into blind, dehumanizing power, bent upon the annihilation of us all unless we meet it with what we have, our power to examine and to redefine the terms upon which we will live and work; our power to envision and to reconstruct, anger by painful anger, stone upon heavy stone, a future of pollinating difference and the earth to support our choices.