The stance of “Strong Opinions, Loosely Held” is very popular. It’s a principle that seems to be adopted by overly confident mansplainers who feel righteously ‘correct’ in their opinions. As a gesture towards grace, they’re willing to [adopt the optics] that they may be wrong—and that’s nice. But gosh you better prepare yourself for a battle. Burden of proof is upon you, buddy.
For those of us whose curiosity eclipses their conviction; it’s all so tiresome.
Much better to have ‘gentle opinions’. (ﾉ◕ヮ◕)ﾉ*:･ﾟ✧
Outrageous stance, I know. In this museletter, I attempt to explain.
But before we dive into it, some tidbits.
◊ Ahoy and welcome to my many new subscribers! Some of you are here because that charming rogue Michael Bungay-Stanier mentioned me in his newsletter.
◊ The Rekindling—our warm speakeasy haven-salon event exploring regenerative futures—was absolutely wondrous the other week. “You had to be there.” I’m a little scared by how much I love what we have happening there. Must tread lightly.
◊ I don’t really have a third tidbit, but I recall it is customary to occasionally re-introduce yourself to your list; such is the distraction economy. This is mildly awkward but, ahem: I’m Dr. Fox, wizard-philosopher, keynote speaker, “leadership futurist”. Or at least, that’s my daylight persona. Here, with you, I’m foxwizard; philosopher-bard.
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What’s this? ...(!)
A Masterclass with Michael Bungay Stanier
This Thursday 21st of September, from 2–6pm in Fitzroy, you have a chance to come along to a very special and exclusive Masterclass with Michael Bungay Stanier.
MBS is best known for The Coaching Habit (the best-selling coaching book of the century). His most recent book, How to Work with (Almost) Anyone, shows you how to build the Best Possible Relationship with the key people at work.
Once upon a frigid evening half a dozen years ago, the wonderful team at Kearney Group sponsored an event wherein we had MBS join us (depicted, above). Together we gathered at Starward whisky distillery—drams and hot jaffles in hand—to explore the sensibilities congruent to Michael’s other bestselling book—The Advice Trap.
MBS is a worldly Australian based in Canada. I’ve long loved his curiosity-driven fox-like ways; particularly as it pertains to encouraging curiosity whilst also pulling at the threads of patriarchy. It’s been a long while since the stars have aligned for us to ‘event’ again but lo! he’s back in our hemisphere. So: let’s event.
Once again, our friends at Kearney Group are hosting.
This time it’s a three-part masterclass.
1) How to Work with (Almost) Anyone
In this practical and interactive masterclass, you'll learn how to build the best possible working relationship with anyone. Brené Brown says the wisdom is real, and I heartily concur. If you work with people, you’ll probably want to attend this.
2) Flourishing Intellectual Honesty
The wizards Dr. Jason Fox and Michael Bungay-Stanier explore the new frontier of thought leadership in this age of social media algorithms and artificial intelligence. What does it mean to be both intellectually honest and commercially effective amidst the distraction economy?
3) The Speakeasy Haven-Salon
Come revel, converse and cohere in good cheer at our favourite local brewery.
Tickets are limited, and this particular event will never happen again.
I’m giving museletter subscribers a heads up before I get on the socials about this one. This event is perfect for anyone who wants to ensure their working relationships are the best they can be, and for anyone who cares about the quality of ideas they cultivate in this exponential age.
And now, my current musing...
Gentle opinions, firmly held
Almost a decade ago, Venkatesh Rao wrote an essay titled The Cactus and the Weasel. The cactus (strong opinions, strongly held) is the degenerate archetype of the hedgehog (strong opinions, weakly held). The weasel (weak opinions, weakly held) is the degenerate archetype of the fox (weak opinions, strongly held).
This all stems from The Hedgehog and the Fox essay by philosopher Isaiah Berlin, which was published about 70 years ago. The title itself is reference to a statement attributed to the Ancient Greek poet Archilochus: “a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog knows one big thing”.
And so I’ve been catching myself having an allergic reaction* to the virtuous line “strong opinions, lightly held” (or “strong views, lightly held”). In my profession, it’s usually delivered by a cocksure executive on a panel, a ‘bullish tech bro’ on a podcast, or a thought leader quoting third-hand material (supplementing limited knowledge with charismatic conviction).
* An allergy is an exaggerated negative response to stimuli. And, whilst I have moved on a bit from metamodernism itself, this old primer on Five Things That Make You Metamodern still feels apt.
That’s not to say I bristle at strong opinions (as a cactus or hedgehog literally might). It’s just that I find it difficult to take them seriously—no matter how they are held.* Instead, I’ll either ‘entertain’ the opinion with wry detachment—often with subtle attempts to sow seeds of doubt (so that curiosity might flourish amidst the concrete of their conviction)—or I’ll judo-skulk the conversation into more generative domains. Novel paths do not flourish when someone is hellbent on a predetermined way.
* This is, of course, domain dependent. Hearing a strong opinion about home renovations from a builder with decades of experience is more than fine; I appreciate the conviction. Likewise a doctor in the context of a medical emergency. But high conviction conjecture despite partial knowledge within complex systems—particularly where strong opinions can have unintended and potentially harmful consequences—I appreciate less.
In his latest book the sage Kevin Kelly recently wrote: “Curiosity is fatal to certainty. The more curious you are the less certain you’ll be.” This kind of sentiment has long struck me as quite apt. As is the inverse implication: the more certain you come across—the ‘stronger’ your opinion—the less curiosity you’ll have.
So why the stance of ‘strong opinions, loosely held’?
It’s a combat disposition.
Your orientation will be towards putting forward a strong case whilst also being willing to defend your opinion from opposing strong opinions. The objective is not a mutual flourishing of understanding, nor a deepening of shared comprehension and appreciation; it’s one opinion ‘winning’ over another. Thus the relational disposition is that of a finite game played to ‘win’ (rather than an infinite game to be played to continue the play).
“We’ve glorified overconfidence,” writes software engineer Michael Natkin.
“The idea of strong opinions, loosely held is that you can make bombastic statements, and everyone should implicitly assume that you’ll happily change your mind in a heartbeat if new data suggests you are wrong... What really happens? The loudest, most bombastic engineer states their case with certainty, and that shuts down discussion. Other people either assume the loudmouth knows best, or don’t want to stick out their neck and risk criticism and shame. This is especially true if the loudmouth is senior, or there is any other power differential... Even if someone does have the courage to push back, in practice the original speaker isn’t likely to be holding their opinion as loosely as they think. Having stated their case, they are anchored to it and will look for evidence that confirms it and reject anything contradictory. It is a natural tendency to want to win the argument and be the smartest person in the room.”*
* That was a long quote I pulled from Michael Natkin’s article, I know. I found it late into my musing, and he wrote it much better than I could have; so here we are.
Perhaps I am concerned about strong opinions because, right now, we have a referendum happening here in Australia. It’s quite simply “to alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.” This, to me, seems very reasonable—given we have on one side the oldest continuing living culture in the entire world (65,000+ years) and then on the other we have a Constitution made by the occupying force only ~123 years ago. The devastation and hurt inflicted by colonisers in the last 200 or so years has been—and continues to be—immense. And whilst I am sympathetic to some of us who would vote ‘no’ to this referendum (as in: ‘no Voice without Treaty’); the optics on that choice are just so devastatingly bad.
Because, right now, we have Rupert Murdoch’s media empire waging a campaign for a ‘No’ vote. It’s become a political thing, as all things are. “Predictably, the Murdoch media has thrown its weight behind Dutton’s opportunistic ‘No’ campaign,” writes Dr. Victoria Fielding in The Independent Australian.
“The Murdoch media is also campaigning against the Voice to damage Prime Minister Albanese. That Indigenous people are collateral damage in this campaign seems not to concern them.
Since the Voice is such a simple concept, and ultimately innocuous consequence for non-Indigenous Australians, Dutton and Murdoch know the only way to muddy the water is to throw as much dirt as they can at the constitutional change. Misinformation is rife, and it is being used to confuse, sow fear, and ultimately divide and damage the country.
This is not how media power is meant to be wielded, particularly not by the largest media organisation in the country. News media is meant to be fair. During public debates like referendums, it is meant to inform, to present fairly both sides of the debate, to give voice to different ideas and to let the people decide.
It is not meant to spread misinformation to degrade the debate or to persuade and become a cheer squad for one side. It is shameful to see Murdoch media waging war on the Voice, and ignoring the damage this does to First Nations Australians and to the country's unity. It is equally frustrating that this misuse of media power is basically unaccountable.”
Plus, on top of this we have our social media platforms that encourage polarisation to extremes. When people sprout strong opinions on these platforms, they subject themselves to the perils of audience capture—which means that they are more likely to double-down on their strong opinions, cactus-like.
But: I’ve made this rant many a time. It’s a trap.
Back to the matter at hand.
In my attempt to elucidate upon my allergy to ‘strong’ opinions, I would automatically recommend Venkatesh’s article to them. But when I actually care enough to share my stance, I try to put forth the fox-like counter to the hedgehog’s strong opinions, loosely held. “Ackchyually,” I explain, “instead of strong opinions, loosely held—I have weak opinions, strongly held”.
This, of course, never works. Everyone blinks at me like I said a joke, guffawing at the notion of a ‘weak’ opinion, bahahaha’ing. Can you believe this guy?
Weakness, it seems, is not to be venerated. And I suspect it’s not quite the right word anyway—though I like the affect it has.
Perhaps a better word than weak is ‘gentle’. It’s closer to what I am getting at here.
This way, our differing opinions do not evoke yet stronger opinions and counterfactuals—we instead provide space for dialogue and discourse to emerge.
This is also tactical cowardice. When I’m up against someone with High Conviction in a conversation—nostrils flared, a fierce aspect to their eyes—the best path is often to retreat to a safer topic.
It’s not my safety I’m worried about so much as theirs. That is: are they ready for ontological collapse? Are they ready for (positive) disintegration? And who am I to bring this about?
And so, I shy away from such out of amusement and care.
But! If there’s a hint of potential, I will work to increase the relative safety of the conversation. This means a myriad of things; affirming the qualities I admire in them, going for a walk so it feels less oppositional, breathing slower and with intent, ensuring we are both well nourished and watered, and many more things besides. By increasing the warmth/safety/comfort of the context we decrease the defensiveness of the stance, allowing for a more generative exploration to emerge.
Then, perhaps, we might get somewhere interesting.
But this is difficult in most of the contexts we converse in these days. The battle-ready stance of the hedgehog “strong opinions, loosely held” is appropriate when “in the arena”. And, alas: most spaces are the arena, these days.
There are some attempts to remedy this. For example, I am quite inspired by Perspectiva’s concept of ‘antidebate’.
“... antidebate is not therefore about being against powerful speech, or competition, or intellectual entertainment, or disagreement. Rather, it’s against the compounding of polarisation, overvaluing speed as a feature of thought and speech, sophistry of all kinds, unreasonable certainty, and an over-emphasis on the kind of partial truth that might win the moment and play to the crowd, while disregarding ‘the whole truth’ that tends to be orphaned by the debate format, rather than its touchstone.”
Would that we could foster more environments like this—albeit with a bit more humour and fire and warmth.
I find these sensibilities mighty congruent with the contexts we seek to create with The Rekindling. It’s also something I know MBS strives for when he encourages folks to tame their temptation to leap to advice-giving, and to stay curious a little longer. (Come to the masterclass!)
But: I need to wrap up this museletter. All of these thoughts are too entangled, and I am falling into the trap of writing long, long soliloquies when other important work beckons.
The tl;dr – soften your strong opinions, be gentle. Move quietly and plant things. Stay curious longer. And so on.
As ever, I truly appreciate you reading. I have a few changes in mind for the format of these museletters; I’d love to get your perspective on them. But: next time.
For now, I wish you gentler opinions, and all the flourishing that follows.
PS: I have decided to dodge the ‘firmly held’ element of weak/gentle opinions. Instead, here are two excerpts from Venkatesh’s article—he has an exquisite way of articulating the stance.
“To get a hedgehog to change his/her mind,” Venkatesh writes, “you clearly have to offer one big idea that is more powerful than the one big idea they already hold. To the extent that their incumbent big idea has a unity based on ideological consistency rather than logical consistency (i.e., it is a religion rather than an axiomatic theory), you have to effect a religious conversion of sorts. The hedgehog’s views are lightly held in the sense of being dependent on only a few core or axiomatic beliefs. Only a few key assumptions anchor the big idea. That is the whole point of seeking consistency of any sort: to reduce the number of unjustified beliefs in your thinking to the minimum necessary.”
“To get a fox to change his or her mind on the other hand,” Venkatesh continues, “you have to undermine an individual belief in multiple ways and in multiple places, since chances are, any idea a fox holds is anchored by multiple instances in multiple domains, connected via a web of metaphors, analogies and narratives. To get a fox to change his or her mind in extensive ways, you have to painstakingly undermine every fragmentary belief he or she holds, in multiple domains. There is no core you can attack and undermine.* There is not much coherence you can exploit, and few axioms that you can undermine to collapse an entire edifice of beliefs efficiently. Any such collapses you can trigger will tend to be shallow, localized and contained. The fox’s beliefs are strongly held because there is no center, little reliance on foundational beliefs and many anchors. Their thinking is hard to pin down to any one set of axioms, and therefore hard to undermine.”
* This is so much like The Culture in Iain M. Banks science fiction series; particularly Player of Games.
But do we want everyone to adopt ‘firm stances’? Not really! Ha. But I must finish up this musing for real. To be continued. Glimmers I shall share with you next time! xoxo
Thank you so much once again. Please feel free to comment or ask questions below; it is always lovely to hear from you. Oh and if a friend forwarded this to you (how nice of them!) you can join the many thousands who subscribe to The Museletter.