We live in an era replete with articles, podcasts, and opinion pieces. Public and private conversation often center on the latest unbelievable event. Wherever we find ourselves, we are surrounded by opinions and commentary. In such a sea of commentary, one wonders what the purpose of it all is.
We often look to knowledgeable commentators. If we know a subject, we can think about it without much help. However, if we do not know something well, we cannot form an educated opinion on it. If we want to know more about something, we seek one who knows more. The good commentator gives an educated perspective. Learning from those who know more allows us to rely on their credentials. It saves us time. For this to be effective, the commentator must be trustworthy. We do not know what spin the commentator has already put on the story before it reaches our ears, unless we have first come to know the commentator as a trustworthy source of information. In this case, we can happily place our trust in his knowledge and learn from him. The commentator serves as our instructor, our teacher. Teachers, properly speaking, are the ones who impart knowledge to their subjects. This is their role. The commentator can adopt this role and often does, but this is an accidental role.
Inasmuch as the commentator takes the role of educator, he becomes our authority on his subject area. A knowledgeable and trustworthy commentator is helpful, but the reader or listener must take care to note when the commentator is straying from his area of expertise. A knowledgeable philosopher may not be a knowledgeable scientist. He is only a knowledgeable scientist when the two disciplines overlap, unless he already knows about both disciplines. When reading or listening to commentators for their expertise, we should take care not to let them become an authority on every subject under the sun. It is a rare commentator who is so knowledgeable about every subject, although every once in a while we stumble upon a Chesterton who comes close.
But commentary is not just a source of knowledge. If it were, the opinion piece would not be very different from the news article. News is meant to communicate events. An opinion piece can communicate new information, but its real purpose lies not in communicating news but in offering a way to think about that news. The commentator gives an opinion: this is his unique role as commentator. Whether we receive this commentary from an article, a video, a podcast, or a conversation, what is unique is that we are receiving the opinion of a person. We seek education from a commentator insofar as he is a teacher, and facts insofar as he is a source of news. But these things already have their proper disciplines: education and reporting. We seek opinions insofar as he is a commentator, because this is what commentary specifically entails: commenting on a subject. This comment is at bottom the opinion of an individual. Here it is still important that the commentator be both knowledgeable and trustworthy. We would call any opinion into question if it came from a person who had no knowledge of the subject matter. We would also hesitate to believe anything said by an untrustworthy man. So these are important requirements for good commentary, but they have less to do with commentary in itself than opinions do.
We want not just any opinions, but the right opinions. We can go to commentary to hear opinions, but this will not be very fruitful if the commentator deals in nonsense. However, the commentator himself does not need to have the right opinions, so long as he is knowledgeable and trustworthy. So long as we arrive at the right opinions with his help, the commentator himself does not need to be right. Having the right opinion need not entail hearing the right opinion. Often by listening to commentary that we disagree with, our own opinions are solidified. If we ourselves are upright and trust both our knowledge and our conscience, listening to commentators with the wrong opinions can be very helpful. It can show us what others think and can help fortify our own opinion when set against its opposite. However, if our foundation is less stable, we cannot rely on misguided commentators to strengthen it. In these cases we must rely on commentators who are upright, commentators who give the right opinions. We trust that their moral excellence and mental clarity combined with their integrity and knowledge will help us to think rightly. We seek those whose judgments are well-founded to help us make the right judgments ourselves. In this case the issue is not learning about the opposing side or confirming our own position. We can do these things by listening to knowledgeable but misguided commentators. The issue here is forming good judgments when we might not have the foundation to do so. Commentators that are upright, knowledgeable, and trustworthy help us to develop our opinions in safety.
Thus commentators are not only sources of opinions which serve merely to inform. If this were the case, we would be back at education. The knowledge would simply concern opinion instead of fact. Commentators rather are sources of opinions which serve to form our own judgments. As they provide commentary, they influence our own judgments on a subject. We can be more or less open to their influence, but the influence is still there. If we seek out commentary for what makes it unique, we are seeking out the opinion of the commentator for the purpose of influencing our own opinions. This means it is all the more important to be attentive to whose commentary is preferred.
In the case of upright, knowledgeable, and trustworthy commentators, we have good reason to believe that their opinions are well-founded. Though they may be well-founded, they are not necessarily worth our time, depending on our own level of knowledge and development on the issue. Even great commentators can be pointless if the one reading or watching the commentary does not need to hear it. If we already know enough about a topic, we do not need to seek a commentator’s knowledge. If we are sure of our opinion, we do not need a commentator to bolster it. At this point, we can still seek out commentary for two reasons. The first is that we believe the commentator is more knowledgeable or more upright than we are, or that his opinions are better than ours. If this is the case, we are still learning. We may have a solid foundation of knowledge on a subject and might consider ourselves good judges of the subject matter, but the commentator has surpassed our expertise. In this case, the commentator is still an effective teacher, source of news, and influence on our opinions, since our own knowledge, uprightness, or opinions are less perfect than the commentator’s. His opinion is still worth our time. Indeed, it is worth more of our time to the degree that it surpasses ours. The more upright the commentator, the better the judgment formed by heeding his commentary.
Another reason we might still turn to commentary is to know that we are not the only ones who think in a certain way. To the one who already knows and thinks rightly, the commentator provides comfort. I am not alone in thinking the way I do. There are others who would support me. However, the important things here are feelings rather than opinions. We want to know that others feel the way we do. Though we are confident in our own opinions, we still might seek solidarity. It is especially passionate commentary that resonates at this point, because it connects with the emotions. When commentary is sought for this reason, it is perhaps more dangerous. Anger about the state of society can be fed by the righteous anger of a commentator. Our emotions are at once validated and amplified. We begin to identify with the commentator, which can be fruitful or unhealthy depending on whether we have chosen a good commentator. Depending on whether the emotions are healthy to begin with, this process can be healthy or unhealthy. Regardless, this is not what makes commentary unique. We can turn to friends, family, and fellow worshipers for solidarity. These are the proper sources of solidarity, affirmation, and encouragement. The unique aspect of commentary is its ability to influence opinion, not so much its ability to influence emotion.
Depending on our own knowledge and uprightness different forms of commentary will be more or less helpful. At different times, we might seek a commentator for his efficacy as a teacher, reporter, or demagogue. But the unique power of commentary lies in the commentator’s ability to influence our opinions. Education, news, and solidarity can be sought elsewhere, and often to greater effect, since they are not proper to the commentator as commentator. But properly, it is commentary from an upright, trustworthy, and knowledgeable source that helps us to form good judgments.
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