Too Little Information

At the Sheva Brachos festivities this past summer for the marriage of our youngest daughter, my wife and I heard many wonderful things about our newest son-in-law. Friends and relatives spoke about his impressive Torah scholarship, his modesty, his sterling character. We had already known all that, although it was good to hear all the same. One testimonial, though, particularly impressed me; it was offered by one of the new husband’s brothers-in-law, who, in a short speech, recounted a long-ago lively Shabbos table discussion at his in-laws’ home.

Each member of the family, it seems, had vociferously put forth his or her perspective on some now-forgotten topic. Except, the speaker recounted, for our new son-in-law. When asked by one of the others for his opinion on the matter, the reticent family member’s simple response was: “I don’t have enough information to have one.”

I smiled broadly inside (probably outside too). If only, I mused, more of us were so thoughtful. Instead, our times seem to foster a diametric approach, that all of us must have opinions, with or without the assistance of facts. Call it a Contemporary Commandment: Thou shalt leave no issue uncommented upon.

And so, opine we merrily do, with or without the requisite information, the clay of which cogent opinions are molded – or objectivity, the furnace that forges them.

Whether the topic is gun control, the Affordable Care Act, immigration reform, Afghanistan or the agreement with Iran, we must speak up; full knowledge, let alone comprehension, of all the pertinent details is no requirement. (Mindless animus for the current occupant of the White House is much preferred – but that’s a different essay.)

Opinions have become something like fashion accessories (“Oh, what a nice opinion you have! Where can I get one like it?”), and too often are just purloined from pundits who make us feel righteous – or fearful or angry, the strange preferences of some.

Worse still is opting for “selective information.” Few if any important political or social topics lack two sides. Listening to only one of them because it’s where one has decided beforehand he’d like to land may be enticing, but it’s irresponsible. Shutting oneself in the echo chamber of (take your pick) “conservative” or “liberal” or Democratic or Republican (or Jewish or non-Jewish) commentary is a recipe for intoxication, not enlightenment.

Please don’t misunderstand. We are entitled to have and voice opinions, to take sides. (Some of us do it professionally.) But thoughtful judgment begins with seriously considering all sides of an issue. And yet, while it’s not exactly hard these days to find very different perspectives on any topic, too many of us purposefully avoid the marketplace of ideas (or limit ourselves to one stall). “Oh, I don’t read that,” we glibly say, or “I never pay attention to him” – simply because the “that” and the “him” represent points of view at odds with the speaker’s gut feelings. What somehow gets lost is the recognition that there’s great gain in confronting a different point of view – and none at all in just having one’s uninformed feelings seconded.

A little experiment: Write down the names of the media or pundits you make a point of reading. Now, examine your list to see if they are homogeneous or represent a broad variety of attitudes or perspectives. If the former’s the case, you’re cheating yourself.

Needless to say, there are ideas from which we observant Jews rightly insulate ourselves. But political and social issues don’t usually entail heresy or licentiousness. What they do entail, and require, is complete information, true objectivity and long, hard thought.

Consider, for example, the death penalty. On the one hand, why should taxpayers be burdened with housing and feeding bad people? Executions, moreover, deter other would-be criminals, and can provide victims’ families a measure of solace.

And yet, there’s another hand. Killing a human being is a grave deed, not to be undertaken lightly. And people, at least some of them, can change. And mistaken convictions have sent innocent people to their deaths.

It’s easy to just dismiss the first set of points as callous, or the second as weak-willed. What’s hard is weighing the two sides against each other. But that’s what’s necessary, in the end, to reach an informed, intelligent opinion.

And if the weighing is inconclusive – which happens more than seldom – and leaves an informed, intelligent person ambivalent, well, then, maybe he should just acknowledge the fact.

What? And remain opinionless? Heavens!

Sometimes, though, that’s necessary. And, as our son-in-law understood – and all of us should – there’s no shame in that.

© 2013 Rabbi Avi Shafran
[email protected]

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