The suggestible nature of opinions

Eric Burns threw up some posts from an old(er) journal of his today. It’s the kind of stuff that is interesting if you are interested in people and their feelings and thoughts. As I am that kind of person, I’m enjoying reading them.

The first half of the second post, entitled Playlists and Coffeemakers: Recapturing the Personal, thrills at how iTunes (and digital music in general) helps us escape peer pressure and embrace the music that we truly like. The best part of this piece is the bit about Billy Joel:

While we were sitting around one day, I made some innocuous reference to Billy Joel.

“Oh, Christ,” Dominic said. “I hate Billy Joel.”

“Me too,” Bill said. “Ugh.”

Now, here I am. I’m an admitted geek. I’m living with geeks and nonconformists and men with Travolta hair. I’m (at that point) in my late twenties, and I’m an intelligent person.

“Oh Jesus,” I thought to myself. “I didn’t know Billy Joel sucked!” So I stopped listening to Billy Joel.

See, all three of my roommates at that time have musical tastes that appeal to me. They introduced me to hardcore Elvis Costello, to Bare Naked Ladies, to Kirsty Macall, to They Might Be Giants, to Bad Religion, to Oingo Boingo, to Stan Ridgway, to Tom Waits, to Warren Zevon, to the Jazz Butcher and that’s just off the top of my head. About the only heavy music influences from my time in Seattle — one of the music capitals of the world — not from Bill or Dominic or T was jazz, and that’s just because we had KPLU, which has to be the best jazz Public Radio station on Earth.

So, while I had always been a huge Billy Joel fan, I suddenly had doubts. And make no mistake, I was a huge fan. I went to his Bridge tour. I had all his albums. I listened to his greatest hits collection on shuffle.

Flash forward five years. I’m living in New Hampshire. I’m getting my CDs out of storage. I’m revisiting old favorites. I’m revelling a little. And I come across Glass Houses.

“Oh, that,” I think. “Forget it. Billy Joel sucks.”

Five years. Five years after an offhanded comment from a couple of guys who didn’t like Billy Joel, and I was still marked.

This really made me think about how our opinions are suggestible. How people will automatically try to like or dislike something based purely on other people’s thoughts on the subject. (The trend while I was in college seemed to be “If everyone else likes it, it sucks. If everyone else hates it, it rules.”) While I don’t know enough about music to really be a music snob or to try and fit a certain musical mold–I like what I like, and if you don’t like it, who cares?–I am susceptible in other ways. For example, yesterday Will and I were talking about a certain community, and I mentioned that I thought it was awesome, but that I would probably feel out of place because I wasn’t cool enough to really be a part of it. Why? What is that? What is the perception of “coolness”?

Part of the reason I like blogs is because anybody can be a rockstar blogger. You don’t even have to pay for your blog if you don’t want to. All you have to do is write. The playing field is completely level.

Or is it? What I’ve noticed is, there are certain rockstar bloggers who are far more famous and read than others. And there are certain types of blogs that are considered “cooler”. I’ve thought about how to reinvent this blog many times, because I’ve felt that it doesn’t have enough general appeal. I always come back to the inescapable conclusion that it’s my blog, and I write what I feel I want to write, and if I try to shoehorn myself I’ll probably just stop doing it. But making the decision not to change what I write about always makes me feel as if I’m giving up on an opportunity for more. (I have an idea for a side-blog that I’ve been kicking around for awhile, even. Something that might be more interesting to the blog readers at large.)

So what is this desire to please others, to eschew true originality in favor of the herd? I really think it comes down to community. We’re social creatures, and we don’t want to alienate people. We want to always know that there are people in our lives, even if we like to spend time alone. Not only that, we want other people to like and respect us, and this can cause us to go so far as lie about our true feelings, in order to alter their perceptions.

I, however, don’t like lying, or pretending to be something I’m not. In fact, I am obsessed with making sure that people understand my opinions. In effect, I want them to be able to make a proper judgment of my value. I want them to have as many of the facts as possible.

And that is really why I write, why I chat, why I post. I have always, since I first started writing notes in school, since I made my first post to a BBS, wanted to be understood for who I am. (Eric’s got a good snippet about the arrogance of writers here.)

I have a harder time with this in the physical company of people, though. I make lies of omission constantly–if I don’t like something, or if I disagree, but I see no point in “rocking the boat”. I don’t know that this is particularly misguided; if I was completely honest at all times and said everything I was thinking, I would hurt a lot of people, and they would stop being my friends. (And I already say too much as it is.) But when I write, it’s absolutely honestly. I write from my gut, from my soul. When you read my words, you are reading me. I can’t write any other way. All I can do is make decisions about what to write about–which is hard, because I honestly want to write about everything.

For example: Right now I’m looking through my water glass at my Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles pen and pencil holder. Michaelangelo is skateboarding with his hand out for balance. His pointer finger is extended. Through the glass, I see a reflection of his hand, and by moving my head back and forth, I can make the hands move together until the pointer fingers are touching, just like Michelangelo’s ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

These are the sorts of weird things I want to write about constantly.

And I want to write hurtful things, too, and things that could easily get me fired. (I wrote something along the latter lines today, and then deleted it.) I want my opinions to be known. All of them.

But I am nowhere near this brutally honest in person.

So Eric’s right, in a way that he didn’t intend. The computer, the Internet, is a haven from peer pressure. With a layer of text between me and other people, my reactions change. When something happens between me and someone online, I am more likely to become angry than I am to just roll over and accept it. Being a writer and maintaining friendships through writing forces me to cast off many societal restraints.

I think that somewhere, there must be a balance.