There is great value in being politically aware. Politics touch upon nearly every aspect of our lives and learning about some of the most exalted institutions and individuals is both useful and interesting. But politics can also be quite complicated. Topics range from health care and immigration to gerrymandering and net neutrality — all of which entail a lot of information. Instead of pretending to know all of it, people should feel unashamed in admitting ignorance. Such humility would lead to more honest discourse and promote deeper pursuits of knowledge in the issues that matter the most.
Unfortunately, being politically acute is often paired with the unreasonable expectation of knowing nearly everything about politics. The very nature of a political issue is complex because it signifies a problem that is difficult to solve. To pretend to have all of the answers, particularly as 20-year-olds, is just foolish. Although it would be hard to find someone with the hubris to claim expertise in all topics political, it would be quite easy to find someone — particularly on this campus — who would express their opinions with an incredible sense of certainty. Vehemence ought not be mistaken for wisdom.
In an age where information is instantly accessible, it is difficult not to form opinions about the latest events. Headlines hit our screens with language that insinuates certain partisan preferences. Professors instruct in a way that reveals their own biases. Rather than deconstructing and critiquing this information, we often accept it as being accurate. Such intellectual laziness allows us to forget that all sources can be fallible.
Why has narrow expertise been widely replaced with shallow knowledge? Possible reasons number in the dozens, but a simple one is the following: Having an opinion is fun, and it is even more fun to have many of them. It is also trendy and can create the appearance that the person who has them is wise and attuned to what is going on. But more often than not, probing such an individual would reveal that they know only a little about many things, but not a meaningful amount about anything.
Another reason individuals may opt for this route is to create a different appearance — not to look smart, but to look like a good person. This is known as “virtue-signaling,” and it is when someone projects a political opinion to illustrate their moral character. An example of this would be a compassionate person who declares there should be free health care for everyone, without ever considering the political and financial obstacles involved. Virtue-signaling should be resisted because it is more likely to create confusion than bring about any helpful solution.
We should not pretend to have all of the answers and we should be skeptical of those who say they do. When someone asks you about a topic you know nothing about, do not be shy about admitting as much. This is not to say we should put a kibosh on our educational progress in areas we have yet to understand. In the meantime, though, as we learn more, we shouldn’t chastise those who haven’t done the same, or those who are uninterested in forming opinions at all.
Brian Deinstadt is a senior double-majoring in political science and English.