In my opinion …

We are shocked when we are alerted to an atrocity such as the recent ones in France, Orlando, England or various other places where violence flares for no justifiable reason. But should we be shocked?

Our culture supports the idea that conflict is the answer to a misunderstanding. If a citizen feels aggrieved, instead of asking for clarity from the person or organisation they think has offended them, they are much more likely to “talk to Joe”, or type expletives anonymously about the other person on “social media”. And the rest of us in large numbers seem content to sit on the fence and watch the brawl! Producers and editors seek out the protagonists who are most likely to fuel an angry reaction and have already been blooded in a previous bout.

Yet, another side of our culture constantly calls us to tolerance and freedom of speech. We are reminded that everyone has a right to an opinion; that it’s a human right to be respected and not dismissed because you may be different.

But perhaps this is over-simplified and over-stated. Surely someone who only speaks hatred and intolerance hasn’t an absolute right to be heard. The right to have one’s life respected and protected is an absolute right. Most other rights have to be balanced against the rights of the community and the “common good”.

The easy access to so-called “social media” have made it possible to pretend that everyone’s opinion is equally valuable — this is different from whether one has a right to express it. For example, on a talk show or on a social network, in a forum discussing the effectiveness of artificial limbs, the opinions of a surgeon with 20 years experience of such procedures, the views of a taxi-driver whose opinion is informed by back-seat gossip, and the insights of an amputee will all be treated as “equal” and given the same weight! And, ironically, the person whose opinion is most likely to be absent from such a forum is the surgeon!

Balance and context are key ingredients for an informed opinion. And informed opinion is a foundation of a healthy democracy and a healthy community.