If: A Letter to the Opinionated

It’s said that the Spartans were known for their laconic wit. When Phillp II declared that if his forces ever entered Laconia, he would raze Sparta for good, the Spartans wasted only one word on their reply : “αἴκα”

“If.”

Through a Glass, Darkly

The past few days have been strange ones. Over the course of one weekend, I’ve heard perceptions of me flit, like the glowing colours of some strange sea-fish: from admirable foolish challenger to gracious, tired loser to whiny, angry sore senior. I heard someone even took the effort to write me an angry poem. It’s quite an honour to be a muse for beginner poets.

The echoes that bounce from unfiltered gossip reach one’s ears eventually, and the refracted images that come back can make for rather uncomfortable viewing, as though through a glass seen darkly. The problem with gleefully demanding to watch shows is that you sometimes become an un/witting actor in one of the most entertaining ones. I suppose you can call this karma, the net result of having an Opinion, and stridently worded ones at that.

People who are unfamiliar with opinions get uncomfortable, and tell you to tone down, to watch your tone. And sometimes for long moments you doubt yourself. You get startled by the acrid sting of feedback; you are puzzled and befuddled by how others simply don’t see things the way you do. And despite your best efforts at clarity and civility there will be people who continue, or even begin, to point their fingers and sneer.

Now the Old King is Dead, Long Live the King

I cannot help but be put in mind of what Harvey Dent, the Two-Face of The Dark Night once caustically and cynically remarked – that

“You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain”

There are certain accepted styles and protocol for behaviour in any community, and when you breach these norms, envisionings of you as a person can morph and shift dramatically, and very quickly.

If you fit a particular trope, you are congratulated. People tell you they are inspired. If, however, you have the audacity to defy said trope, you are transferred automatically into another bracket. You are deposited into another mould. An appropriately socialised social reaction will greet you there too: either suspicion, or disgust, or distaste. There is often no space for nuance, it seems, when it comes to baking up opinions of people you don’t know.

The great dreamer of the Discworld, Terry Pratchett, also comes to mind as i meditate on the astonishing fluidity of public perceptions. I think it’s Moist (“Hi, I’m Moist”), of Going Postal and Making Money fame who speaks these words, because he is Pratchett’s (and Vetinari’s) ultimate showman:

“Always remember that the crowd that applauds your coronation is the same crowd that will applaud your beheading. People like a show.”

And who can blame people for liking a show? I too love sitting by my laptop watching a public spat unravel. I love the stench of dirty laundry, uncleaned despite washing machines.

Contexts & Contrarians

It’s astonishing how similar reactions sometimes can be – that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Events leave me in a reflective mood about how perceptions of yourself can change to people, so suddenly, but also so consistently.

I’ve had an Opinion long enough to be more amused (and puzzled) by the frantic gibbering that always bubbles up in the wake of some silt-stirring on the riverbed. But this isn’t a post about chittering monkeys. It’s a post about courage, and having an opinion. The opinion on having courage. The courage to have an opinion, even.

Sure, i am usually disoriented by the views that sometimes filter in through friends; things said about me from people I didn’t know. Things people would say, about what i had said, and what they thought I had meant. Well-meant advice about how i could better carry myself.

It’s happened for as long as I could articulate a contrarian opinion. I think it must have been six years old the first time it happened. At first I was afraid, I was petrified. I thought that what people thought about me was going to cripple me. Obviously, what people think of me evidently still matters; that is why I am typing this post. But I thought a reflection was in order – a clarion call to say that: it doesn’t matter that much.

This is why we need better-trained academics. This is why we need more historians; people who don’t take remarks and comments at face-value, and try to contextualise before they start hooting and clapping and growling.

“Give Hope”

But as my life-ship clips along the little sea of university life, I think I have grown up enough to be a little less unnerved. I spent a while dwelling on whether I should file an entry about my insecurities, to proclaim my vulnerability so openly. It is not easy, to write about oneself in this way. You don’t know how readers will take it. And then there will be people who will talk about ulterior motives. There are always people who chitter on about ulterior motives. It’s like having mosquitoes in any neighbourhood.

A lot of mental munching has gone into this entry. I tried to write about other things, but somehow the words didn’t flow into other things. It was as if my spirit itched and called for me to finish what I wanted to say first. Today a JC teacher who was attending a Roundtable at NUS told me I had a gift of putting complex emotions into simple words. Ms Teo had also been the one who had told me to give hope through my writing. As I sit here at 12.40am I see those kind words as a sign as good as any other to publish this entry.

Icarus

I write here for the outspoken, the vocal and very likely, the brash. I write here for anyone who has tried to speak up for some perspective, some cause, but has been told to keep quiet, or has been silenced by the sheer ferocity of the popular opinion directed back against them. I write here for any person who has been frightened and intimidated into silence. I write here for the monsters and the assholes, those distorted and warped not by their own words or actions, but the popular perceptions of those words and actions.

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” – Edmund Burke

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”
WB Yeats

I write here for the pioneers, the rebels and mutineers, who have come close and lent an ear. I write here for the renegades, as one of your kind.

And I say only that we continue writing. I say that we continue speaking up. I say that we continue acting, and doing the things that are important to us. It isn’t going to be easy, but I think better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.

The Arrogance and Humility of Opinion

So i think we should all have an opinion. I beg to (politely, and kindly) differ from those who would call us to sit down and shut up simply because they feel our tones are too harsh for their objective, unbiased standards of protocol and propriety. We should all remain civil in our conversations and our debates. Basic respect should prevail. But blind kindness is no kindness at all. Perhaps trying a little empathy is more useful than to try for uncritical niceness.

That said, anyone can have an opinion. I think we should all have an opinion –  but one substantiated and argued robustly; though with enough modesty to tweak this opinion in the face of convincing counterarguments. I say this: we should have the arrogance to articulate an opinion, but the humility to change it.

Conviction

But anyone can have an opinion, and words are wind, as a man once said. One must also have the conviction to act on it, because empty vessels make the most noise. St Francis of Assisi famously called for Christians to preach the gospel – but to only use words if necessary. The Mahatma Gandhi himself challenged us to “be the change you want to see in the world”.

This cycle, I’ve been less fazed by the names that have been thrown at me. Let my actions speak for themselves; let the friends I have helped in their darkest hours defend me, if they thought I was worth defending. I know the world isn’t so distinct, nor so uncomplicated. This is why Ned Stark and then later Robb Stark got their heads lopped off, but one can always hope. Stories have immense power. They shape realities, and I still hope. I still believe. I believe in friends who will speak for me. I believe in people who will see what i do and hear what i say and read what I write, rather than what other people think I say. I believe kindness isn’t words typed out in an online tabloid. I believe kindness is time and effort you take for your friends and your juniors and your mentees – to listen to them, to read their frightened essays, to ask about their PSLE, to speak up for them. I believe in action too, as much as I am a mouthy mouth.

I don’t think one should waste too much time on the opinions and judgment of people who read two lines of your two-thousand page life story, or listen to three notes of your sixty minute orchestra, or nibble anemically at the appetizer that is the feast of your life. These aren’t people, after all, whom you can have intelligent conversations with anyway.

An Itch in the Spirit

This entry wasn’t supposed to spill into 1800+ words. I had only started this entry the way I usually start – to write from the heart, to get at the itch inside my spirit. This entry had originally been meant simply as a reblog of Kipling’s famous poem – but the words inside me burst out helplessly.

Does this entry come across as bitter? Does it come across as angry? Or does it come across as bold, defiant, audacious? Words; so many words, but all with the emotionally charged power to shape how we see people. I don’t think it’s a coincidence  ‘spell’ can connote magic and phenomenal power. No matter. It’s tiring to cultivate a personality, and I have never been much of the agriculturing sort. Read me as you are, and take out of this what you will – we don’t see things as they are, we only see things as we are. Here is thus, a blogpost for all reeling, unbalanced, discouraged, disheartened, discomforted by threats, word, sneers, sounds; no matter how trivial, no matter how trying.

Here’s to the brave, fierce, proud ones: the pioneers; rebels and mutineers, the new kids, the underdogs and the outlaws – who have the audacity to mouth off, who have the conviction to do morely and talk wisely, and the humility to listen.

Here’s to the renegades.

If

Rudyard Kipling

If you can keep your head when all about you   
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,   
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
    But make allowance for their doubting too;   
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
    Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
    And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;   
    If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;   

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same;   
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
    And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
    And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
    And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
    To serve your turn long after they are gone,   
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
    Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,   
    Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
    If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,   
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,   
    And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
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