Saturday, June 11, 2016

How to Be a Billy Goat: Opinions versus Perspectives

Opinions are something we all have, but they don't do anything for anyone but the one who has them. Perspectives are something we can share to help not only ourselves but anyone open to hearing them.

If you're wondering why you should be a billy goat you can read about it here:

That's Your Opinion

Billy goats work against the opinionification of dialogue. If we try to have a conversation based on opinions there's not likely to be much movement. You like watermelon; I know that it tastes awful. I like peanut butter globbed onto my sandwiches; you spread it thin like a monster. 

Opinions are unassailable. No one can be wrong about their opinion. Whatever you think about something is what you think about something. Period. There's no conversation just entrenched statements. 

Opinions are closely tied to our identities. We believe them with the same fervor as we believe that we have value and meaning in the world. So, an attack on our opinions is an attack on our identity which is an attack on our value and meaning. Such attacks trigger our fight-or-flight, lizard-brain response. 

Opinions are the beginning of a perspective, not the end. 

Put Things in Perspective

Perspectives are the explanation of our opinions. Why do I dislike the taste of watermelon? Because I grew up not liking it, it reminds me of other tastes that are bad, and I have repeatedly tried it from different places and at different times in my life and I still don't like it. You can like watermelon for all of your reasons. I don't have to share your opinion to see the world from your perspective. 

Opinions are a primal part of our brains. They are emotional reactions. In themselves opinions don't do more than just describe our feelings. But when we start to stitch our opinions together, to suss out the reasoning behind them, and to create a framework the explains why we came to have our emotional reactions, we have a perspective. 

A perspective gives us something to work with when we come to a dialogue. It gives us a way to share the why behind our opinions and, more importantly, it gives us a way to critique our own opinions and, if possible, find better ones. 


In school we all learned about the scientific method. You take a hypothesis (a guess about how things ought to work based on what you've observed), figure out a way to test your hypothesis (an experiment), and then based on the test you either confirm your hypothesis or change it to fit the new observations from the experiment. 

Your opinions are your observations about the world. They are the emotional sensors giving you information. This is scary, this is fun, this is sad, this is thrilling, this is happy. 

Your perspectives are your hypothesis about the way the world works. This is scary because... this is fun because... this is sad because...

The beautiful thing about a perspective is that you can test it. You can check to see if it matches all of your observations. You can provide some context for your observations (i.e. opinions) rather than having them exist without any chance of being critiqued. 

Your conversations with others, both online and in person, both with people you know and with people you don't (like through books and news sources), are the tests you can run to see if your hypothesis works or not. 

When you get to the end of each conversation, whether it's an online dialogue or a class in school or a book you've read, you get to revisit the opinions you started with and compare them to the opinions you had during the conversation. Then, most importantly, you figure out your new perspective (i.e. your new hypothesis). 

There's No Such Thing as a Failed Experiment

As a billy goat you're not just working to make yourself better at having conversations online, but showing a better way. You will, without a doubt, get into conversations where the other side isn't willing to move past opinions. There's not much you can do in that conversation. Move along; move along. 

If our conversations are experiments all you did was find a a way that your hypothesis doesn't work. That's not a failure as long as you learned something. Maybe you learned how to not start a conversation with someone who disagrees with you. Maybe you learned that this particular person or place on the internet isn't one where you can safely share your perspective. Maybe you learned about a perspective that you'd never discovered before. 

Whatever happens in conversations, learn something, take something away, shift your perspective. If nothing else, you'll be better for it. But what's most likely to happen is that people will start to notice how you handle yourself. They'll start to see a different way to be online. Maybe you'll start a movement of billy goats. 

Next up: stalkers aren't always a bad thing. 

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