A few select words about 'popping off'

It may seem strange, perhaps even hypocritical, to use an opinion column to criticize opinions and opining, but that is exactly what I intend to do right here, right now.

I'll say it at the start: I'm weary of opinions. I'm worn down from them. Tired. Like Matrix films and boy bands, there are simply too many of them out there.

I'm not tired of well-written, well-reasoned and thoughtful editorials or commentaries. I'm not even tired of the occasional rant, so long as it displays a bit of wit and has a genuine point.

It's just that finding those pretty little wildflowers among the thick weeds of talk radio, rapid-analysis television, newspaper editorial pages and web site discussions has become a difficult task. There are opinions everywhere you look, everywhere you listen. There air is thick with them. It smells of them. And here's another one. Sorry.

I call it the culture of popping off. We live at a time that has thrown wide open the avenues to air grievances publicly. If the 80s were the Me decade and the 90s the greed decade, I vote for calling this first decade of the 21st century (what do we call it, anyway? The double-zeroes? The double-noughts?) as the Popping Off decade. It's the Opinion decade, the Here's What I Think decade.

Kirkland residents will likely know what I'm talking about. Despite its laid-back atmosphere and small-town feel, Kirkland has always struck me as a wired community. A lot of people here work in or are familiar with technology business. They have electronic access, satellite television. They know the internet, and they have no doubt seen and perhaps even participated in what I'm talking about.

That is, they've seen or heard our big community shouting at each other, banging heads in cyberspace or on the airwaves, making their points, over and over again, and discrediting dissent.

It's not just a case of he who shouts the loudest gets the most viewers or listeners. That's distasteful, but I understand the market forces that cause it. Television needs viewers; radio needs listeners. It sells advertising, not to mention hardcover books.

What strikes me as sad is the obsession with being heard, of having my say, of getting this off my chest or simply finding people who agree with me and can affirm my beliefs.

It's a kind of electronic comfort food. There's a massive rush of words out there aimed not at challenging your thinking or swaying you with argument, but simply screaming or rehashing well-known opinion. And depending where you stand, the shouter is either a brilliant, well-informed debater expressing hard-won truths, or an idiot.

I have a friend in England who frequently sends me links to obscure web sites, some political, some not. Never mind how much time he wastes trolling the internet for oddities. That's a whole different issue. What strikes me is how much of his time he spends seeking out confirmation of his own opinions about everything from musical tastes to the invasion of Iraq.

Here's one example, using the invasion of Iraq: an old Vietnam veteran agrees with him and says so on some obscure anti-war site that will publish just about anything. A nun in Philadelphia also agrees with him and has said so pretty elegantly, though not without familiar arguments. A writer for a newspaper in Auckland, New Zealand, has also chimed in and he agrees, too, as does a particular weblogger somewhere in cyberspace, or someone chiming in on an obscure discussion board. And there were others, but never mind.

My friend finds such things regularly, attaches them to messages, and fires them off in e-mail, as if to say "see, I'm right, and here's more proof of why."

He's not alone. It's everywhere you go, especially in cyberspace. Some of it makes for fascinating reading. Most of it doesn't. It only takes one look at a lengthy newspaper discussion board string to get a feel for the popping-off culture, the infantile he said/she said echo, the circular arguments that almost immediately lose the original thread and get personal. And let's not even talk about the grammar or spelling mistakes.

Of course, all of this has been a boon to the freelance writing community. Suddenly, there is a whole new medium to be stuffed full of words. Paid words. Web sites like Salon and Slate respond immediately to happening events with crashing waves of opinion and instant analysis.

Suddenly, a writer can knock off stuff daily and send it out there. Never mind if you're just being purposely petulant, or haven't really done your homework or if you're not much of an expert. Be funny, be cute, be clever and be opinionated and you've got a chance. Typical titles are things like: Why I Hate the Winter Olympics. Why the Matrix Sucks. Why the Yankees Will Win the World Series Again. Blah, blah, blah.

And if the piece doesn't sell the first time? Send it again, but hurry. Because the shelf-life of the pop-off column is usually just a day or two. Within hours you can be proven completely wrong, or simply left irrelevant by the shifting tide of the news.

None of this is to suggest that there shouldn't be any opinions out there. There should be. Democracy is a cacophony if nothing else. One complaint in the post-September 11 world is that certain opinions were stifled by threats, outcry or business leverage. It's a great strength of democracy, this ability to be heard, these avenues of expression.

But what's lacking, especially among the professional Pop Off writers, is simple accountability. It doesn't matter if I was wrong yesterday, or the day before yesterday or even the time before that. What matters is that I'm clever and what I'm saying right now.

And if I'm wrong today, well, check back tomorrow. I might be right then. Or not. It doesn't really matter, does it? It's just my opinion.

Dave McLean is a former Courier colunmist who now lives in Slovakia.[[In-content Ad]]