Shut Up and Listen (and read and think)

Do you know where your opinions come from?
Throughout my childhood and teens and into my twenties, I didn’t read newspapers, pay much attention to the news, listen to discussions about serious issues. I thought three things about broadsheets, Radio Four and serious discussions: they were for corduroy-wearing intellectuals, they were boring and they were for older people.
But I did quietly study people. Because I was shy, I watched and I listened. I noticed differences and strains. And I read a lot of fiction. Books for any age will examine relationships, the way humans interact, the habits we take on subconsciously and deliberately. But badly written books make a lot of assumptions and don’t question them and it’s only an awareness of ourselves and the world around us that can help us to challenge these assumptions.

I have noticed over time that the world is full of commentators – and not just social networking and blogging ones. Everyone seems to be repeatedly airing an opinion about things they see and hear and the awful thing is these opinions are often not thought through or even the true opinion of the person voicing it. People regurgitate at lot of the stuff they heard as a child, that they read in the tabloids, that they pick up from their peers. There are lots of clichés out there. People are living by well-worn tropes. People fool themselves that they have an opinion and a valid one at that but how often does the average person sit down and think about what they are doing and saying and why they are doing and saying it?
How often do people readily change their minds about things? And why do so many people think this is a bad thing?

If, unlike me, you did grow up listening to Radio 4, reading broadsheets and taking an interest in intellectual discussion, you may now be mingling in a world of ponderers, informations finders, educated non-judgemental people. (I do hope so. It must be lovely!) You may have sat up late at night at university, reading poetry or putting the world to rights over too many real ales and broadening your understanding and acceptance of alternative thinking. You may then be surprised to know how little other intelligent people are taking on and processing thought-provoking information.

In 2000 I discovered The Open University – originally to learn how to use a computer and the Internet. I gradually began to notice, through using social forums, how narrow-minded I was and how at risk I had previously been of getting stuck in a system of fixed assumptions and set ways. Without realising it I had become unintentionally judgemental and, quite frankly, rather silly and unoriginal in my thinking.

Later that year I signed up for a social sciences course and (cliché alert) it changed my life. It opened up my mind. It taught me that there often is no right or wrong, or only one valid opinion on anything and that figures are not the same as facts. It taught me to be less judgemental, more accepting, more curious and to be brave about challenging assumptions, general consensus, behaviours and – well, everything.

What’s really sad is that it made me realise that, without knowing, I had been trying to be something I wasn’t all my life, just to fit in. I had obsessed about being a perfect mother (what the heck is a perfect mother anyway?! That’s a huge area for discussion), looking my best, having a pristine home, following the correct protocol, for social habits such as Christmas and Easter, doing the done thing when I gave birth in hospital, getting babysitters when I didn’t even want to leave my precious young babies, involving my children in lots of social activities and keeping up appearances, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera… The list is huge and it includes many assumptions about gender roles that make me weep today.
I was even letting other people tell me what to do all the time and how I should be living my life. I didn’t realise that I could adequately decide things for myself. I also watched a lot of television and let presenters present me with information and facts without question.

Ten years of reading, listening and thinking has – oh go on – It’s “opened my eyes”! I see things better, I really do, with longer, wider vision. I will not accept regurgitated information under any circumstances. It makes me cringe. I question everything. I look deeper. I may come back to the same conclusion, I may not.

Here’s a commonly used cliché: When someone’s in hospital everyone says “Oh dear. Well he’s in the best place.” How many times have your heard that? Why is it the best place? Yes the NHS is brilliant and I’m very proud of it but I can think of a few examples where it turned out that hospital wasn’t the best place.
And why in the UK are we always telling children not to talk when they’re eating? Hasn’t anyone noticed that teatime is in fact a fantastic time to catch up with what your children did that day?
Why do we repeatedly tell men they can’t multitask, or do the washing properly or talk about emotions? Haven’t you heard the “Give a dog a bad name…” cliché ? 😉
Most men are actually as good as women at housework, cooking and childcare. Some are actually better. Yup. It’s not a woman’s job. Men just haven’t had as much practice on the whole.
My advice to my children is always to question everything. Particularly to my son who watches far too much Jeremy Clarkson! (And why is Simon Cowell on television so often and why does anyone respect the noise that comes out of his mouth? ) Be aware of opinions presented as facts. Raise an eyebrow at clichés. Question traditions and behaviours performed “en masse” and modern social habits just because that’s the way it’s done or they’ve always been done that way (the chances are – they haven’t anyway).
Get your head around an alternative opinion and then by all means dismiss it if you don’t agree.
To do this we all need to shut up sometimes and listen to, read and think about the world around us.
I’ll shut up now.

11 thoughts on “Shut Up and Listen (and read and think)

  1. I love the way your posts stop me in my tracks and really make me think. They are real encougement – and a hug for when I get it wrong while I’m trying to improve my own behaviour x

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  2. Great post. I, too, was surprised when I got older and wiser at how narrow-minded I once had been. (And I agree about Simon Cowell….just saw the first American Idol show last night and I didn’t miss him. Steven Tyler is going to be fun to watch.)

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  3. Rachel, this is really insightful, thank you. However, having studied & worked at universities for many years I’ve found ‘intelligent’ and ‘intellectual’ people can be just as narrow-minded and rigid in their views. There is often an intellectual snobbery that exists which is quick to dismiss anything mainstream or populist. I suppose we all have our prejudices and like to feel superior to others at times.

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    • Yes, I agree with your comment on academic elitism or “credentialism”, Clair. In fact I mentioned it in my Normblog profile in the summer: http://normblog.typepad.com/normblog/2010/08/the-normblog-profile-362-rachel-carter.html
      Some people do use their education to feel superior. It makes one wonder just how intelligent they really are – maybe they are the type of person who is like that anyway. Armed with knowledge is not necessarily the same as armed with wisdom.
      My main point is that we should all be looking more deeply at society and that must include learning, reading and listening more in order to be wise and if people are going to blurt out noisy opinions then they should at least validate them and I’m not sure many people do.
      In fact my comments about the effects of a university education were mostly meant tongue-in-cheek. 😉
      Not sure I agree with wanting to feel superior… ?

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      • I really need to add that educating myself has made me a better, LESS superior person. I am so much less likely to judge people now.
        Whereas I find some media personalities such as Simon Cowell and Jeremy Clarkson incredibly superior for no good reason.
        I think a lot of mainstream TV recently is about judging, disrespecting and insulting people and it’s quite distressing.

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  4. Great post. Completely agree. Would also add that a downside to the listening to Radio 4, critical thinking, tweeting etc is that sometimes I get very angry about things I can do nothing about, feel I have to have an opinion on everything, and can become a bit of a news junkie. Sometimes it is nice to remind myself to chill out a bit, and think “You know what – I’m just going to worry about stuff that is in my sphere of influence”.

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  5. Amazing post Rachel. My parents were very intelligent and liked to talk and debate and let me form opinions freely; sadly they were so free about it I didn’t take advantage of that and it’s only the last few years my brain’s woken up a bit! I want to do an ou course for the exact same reasons. My husband is great he loves discussion on any topic and he’s encouraged me to find my own opinions too. And if there’s one thing I want my kids to do, it’s exactly what you say – question everything, discuss, debate, argue and never be judgemental about anyone’s point if view.

    Seriously, brilliant post. X

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