Lately I’ve been fascinated by the oft-used media cliché “breaks silence.” No doubt you’ve seen this phrase appear in numerous headlines. Just in the past week, we’ve seen silence-breaking from Soon-Yi Previn on husband Woody Allen’s family troubles, Ariana Grande on the death of ex-boyfriend Mac Miller, and Serena Williams on her outburst at the U.S. Open. It’s just such an irresistibly dramatic turn of phrase. The implication of “breaks silence” is that some great truth or revelation is about to be imparted. It also insinuates that in the modern age, anyone who has already not weighed in on anything of note is analogous to a J.D. Salinger-esque hermit, and that finally giving your take (even if your silence lasted only days, or even hours) amounts to an overdue return to civilization.
Of course, that’s a pretty unreasonable, if not untenable, supposition. Which is why “breaks silence” frequently comes off as hilariously overwrought. When Victoria Beckham “breaks silence” about an unflattering wedding photo, or Ariana Grande’s brother “breaks silence” regarding Miller’s tragic demise, it’s worth asking: Does anyone notice or care in most instances about a lack of commentary? No. No, they don’t.
Nevertheless, there’s no denying that in 2018, silence truly does seem broken, perhaps irreparably. The news cycle now is driven by prominent people who are not qualified to pontificate on a particular subject but nonetheless do speak with disastrous results, and then are signal-boosted repeatedly by professional and social media. Again, there are many examples just from the past week, whether it’s Sean Penn bloviating incoherently about “what they call the movement of #MeToo” or any number of absurdly over-confident pundits defending Brett Kavanaugh and definitively ruling out the need for further investigation into whether he sexually assaulted Christine Blasey Ford in the early ’80s.
There are dozens, if not hundreds, of people you could add to this broken-silence class — Norm Macdonald, Jian Ghomeshi, Roseanne Barr, Elon Musk, James Gunn, Nicki Minaj, Kanye West, and sweet Jesus I already feel exhausted. In nearly every instance, you see a celebrity getting in trouble for speaking on topics that are way, way, way outside of his or her lane, with virtually no shot at an upside.
Over and over, I find myself wondering why an extremely helpful phrase remains so woefully under-utilized. I refer to the five most useful words in the English language: “I don’t have an opinion.”
How wonderful is it to not have an opinion? Extremely wonderful! It’s so liberating! But it also necessitates a certain level of self-awareness and even self-deprecation. You have to recognize that on most topics, you don’t really have the time or inclination to put in the work required to have something of value to share.
If you can accept that, you will be flying. There is no better drug in the world than typing one of your terrible, selfish, ill-informed, and thoroughly half-baked opinions into Instagram, Facebook or Twitter, and then not posting it. It will instantly make even a normal, boring day seem like the greatest day of your life, simply because you decided not to have a take that might embarrass you publicly.
I’ll use myself as an example: I’ll fully admit that I was once arrogant enough to believe that I should use my social media account to sound off on a broad range of cultural and political issues. But then I realized something about myself: Most of the time, what I have are thoughts, not opinions.
Thoughts are plentiful. I have a million of them running around my head — good thoughts, bad thoughts, smart thoughts, dumb thoughts, funny thoughts, dark thoughts, depressive thoughts, reactionary thoughts, petty thoughts, godawful thoughts, hey, does that jerk think he’s better than me? thoughts, and, well, you can see where this is going. Out of all those many thoughts, 98 percent will never escape my skull — for the good of others, but mostly for my own good. One percent of them will only ever be shared with trusted confidantes via Slack, Gchat, or texts. The remaining one percent — the intelligent, informed, and admirably thoughtful thoughts — are reserved for public consumption. This elite one percent are my opinions.
The rest, well, are garbage. And, most of the time, I think I’m pretty good at separating the minute traces of mental wheat from the loads and loads of brain chaff. I just need to have enough self-discipline to make myself utter those five magical words — “I don’t have an opinion” — when it is clear that I have nothing to contribute.
I really want to stress words like “value” and “contribute” here. As Americans, we’re all proud of our right to express ourselves. And we should be! But we take significantly less pride in knowing when to STFU, even though knowing when to STFU is just as vital for an enlightened, progressive society. Because when people who aren’t smart or informed or imbued with first-hand knowledge regarding the topic at hand speak at the same time as those who do, it’s harder for the rest of us to hear the people who actually know something. It might even confuse us to the point where we believe that a doddering ignoramus (let’s say Sean Penn, to pick a random example) deserves our time and attention over people who have actually experienced sexism and harassment. And that hurts us all in the long run.
I wish Norm Macdonald, a comedian I have loved for most of my life, would’ve fully embraced an “I don’t have an opinion” lifestyle during his recent controversies. In that fateful Hollywood Reporter interview, Macdonald basically said “I don’t have an opinion” regarding Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix special Nanette, which was great, but then he offered an opinion that was only ever going to sound dumb and ignorant because he preemptively undermined himself.
I know Norm said many other problematic things in that interview. But this Nanette thing, at least, was avoidable. Consider his original quote:
I have never seen the Nanette thing because I never wanted to comment on it. But from what I have read about it, [comedian Hannah Gadsby] is saying that comedy is now not about laughter. And of course that’s a slap in the face of a traditional stand-up comedian who thinks that comedy by dictionary definition is about laughter. And that’s your job. You actually do have a job onstage. Nanette doesn’t sound like stand-up to me. That sounds like a one-woman show. And one-person shows are, to me, incredibly powerful. But it’s not stand-up comedy and it’s not the same thing.
Now let’s imagine Macdonald expressing the same thought but with the “I never wanted to comment on it” part at the end instead of the beginning:
From what I have read about it, [comedian Hannah Gadsby] is saying that comedy is now not about laughter. Nanette doesn’t sound like stand-up to me. That sounds like a one-woman show. And one-person shows are, to me, incredibly powerful. But I have never seen the Nanette thing because I never wanted to comment on it.
It’s not perfect, but it’s better. In the first quote, he says “I don’t have an opinion” and then expresses an opinion in spite of his ignorance. In the second, he lays out the reasons for why he’s not informed and then exits. The “I don’t have an opinion” part is what we’re left with. It’s what we should have been left with all along.
The beauty of “I don’t have an opinion” is that it’s not merely some B.S. public-relations strategy. It’s an acceptance of reality. Norm Macdonald didn’t have an opinion on Nanette because he hadn’t seen it. That’s where it should have ended. The rest is just self-indulgence, self-delusion, and self-sabotage.
For the people who whine constantly about politically correct snowflakes stifling free speech, there is no inconvenient truth bomb that is tougher or more uncompromising than, “I don’t have an opinion.” If you don’t believe me, try it: Admit to yourself that, regarding virtually every subject under the sun, you are talking out of your ass, and you need to stop for the good of the world. It’s painful, I know. But facts don’t care about your feelings.