A requiem for opinion

language-shapes-view-of-world-anthem-cultureInternational Mother Tongue day first registered in my consciousness in Owo, on a visit with Mama Winifred Awosika. The next commemoration, February 21, 2016, seemed a long time, coming, as we discussed the challenges of being hybrids of many cultures, languages and ways of life. In this year’s commemoration, thoughts skirting in my mind coalesced for this contribution to our individual self-discovery. It is the need to understand the foreign word “opinion” and to chart a path towards a simple and true life based on truths known and yet to be known.

A major lesson for me on the difficulty in transferring a concept from one language to another was at the 1986 World Highway Conference in Seoul Korea. The MC at the Gala Night drafted me to the stage along with others; for each to sing “I love you” in the mother-tongues. I told the great Korean Singer that in Yoruba, we do not say “I love you” but “I have love for you.” However, we can say “I like you.” This is seminal, capable of generating volumes in treatise. Love is a feeling. It is expressed in many ways, particularly in caring for self and others. It is not a verb!

I have come to know of many such concepts that are not given to literal translation from one language to another. This is a humble submission for the evisceration of the English word from our vocabulary. The first step is to understand the definition of the word by the originators and then to realize that its usage is inappropriate for many circumstances and situations. On September 11, 2001, the Mayor of New York, Rudy Gulliani, said the first report that got to him was that a small plane had crashed into the World Trade Towers. That was the news flashed on media. As he rushed south from Uptown Manhattan, the second plane hit the second tower. The Mayor dismissed the assumption of a small plane. Based on his experience as a Public Prosecutor, he had the hunch (intuitive feeling) that it was likely to be a terrorist attack; yet he still waited to find out the truth.

The forming of an opinion before truth is known on a subject often becomes an impediment to the quest for truth! In Science the first idea considered is called a hypothesis! As research progresses, incorrect hypothesis is dropped. The lesson from this is “do not anchor your decision or choice on imaginings! Things are not always what they seem.”

In the newspaper tradition, there are reports of events (news) and there are opinions. In 1998, Les Alpin of Long Island Newsday told me they realized that the word “opinion” was misleading, so they changed the Opinion Page to Viewpoints. Some other newspaper houses changed to “perspectives.” This is instructive. The Op-ed page should not be a platform for displaying ignorance, as happens when a person speaks or writes about what he does not know. These other two concepts are closer to describing what a person observes and correctly expresses as “as I see it” which is stronger than opinion although lower than as it is: veritable truth.

The great Yale University teacher of writing, Professor William Zinsser, author of the textbook On Writing Well, stated, “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence may not contain an unnecessary word; a paragraph may not contain an unnecessary sentence.” There is much competing for the attention of the human mind. Say what you want to say as quickly and as briefly as possible, or that flighty bird is gone to another issue. Tell us what you know to be true or spare us the garbage. Effective writing requires revising unendingly.

In the year 2000, when Lady Lucy Scott, mother of Gene, my beloved friend, brother and boss at Tennis Week magazine passed away, I told him it was a catalyst for spiritual awakening and for him to seek enlightenment on life after death. He said it was the most asinine thing to believe in life after death. After September 11, 2001, the visionary Gene said, “it is time for people to wake up.” He decided to move our office from the 6th floor of MTA Building in New York City to Rye, on the old Post Road from New York to Boston. Drawing on the benefit of ICT, our two staff resident in New Jersey could work from home. Then over lunch, in a Café in Rye, the subject came up for discussion. Gene was an Ivy League scholar in Yale before studying Law at the University of Virginia; certainly one of the most educated individuals I knew. The question was put to him: “Would an enlightened educated man dismiss as non-existent what he does not yet know?” to which Gene answered “Jake, you have a point there; a man portrays himself as stupid when he speak on what he doesn’t know instead of honestly saying “I don’t know.” Do you recommend any book for me to read on the subject?” In 2006, when Gene passed on, the dialogue was read at his funeral. His surviving brother said, “Gene, you and mother now know the truth.”

Life after death is not a matter for opinion, or what a person thinks. Worse still is to spread such under the hubris of “opinion” and the presumptuous insistence on a right to opinion about everything? Where do we draw the line between truth and assumption or wishful thinking? If the question on life after death is the mother of all questions, could dismissing the reality be described as the father of all ignorance? As many such people claim to be religious, why do they drop this particular enlightenment in the Sacred Book, be it Bible or Quran?

The Dictionary definition is educative. It is one of those concepts which do not have appropriate designations in our indigenous languages. Dr Luke Onyekakeyah helped to anchor this when he said that the Igbo language is full of proverbs conveying vivid pictures that are irrefutable. They say in Igbo “If you want to tell lies, use Pidgin English.” Like with many indigenous languages, there is a demand for telling others what you know to be true. When each person speaks or writes only what he knows to be true, the word “opinion” would disappear from our vocabulary and speech, as it was never in our psyche.
Akindele is a visiting member of The Guardian Editorial Board.



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