Last month, I had the marvelous fortune to watch Martin Scorsese’s documentary, “Pretend It’s A City.” It’s a love letter to New York City as well as a biography of writer Fran Lebowitz, a legendary and hilarious figure among its eight million inhabitants. The last episode of the show leaves us with the following quote, first penned by Lebowitz four decades ago but timeless in its significance: “Think before you speak. Read before you think. This will give you something to think about that you didn’t make up yourself — a wise move at any age, but most especially at seventeen, when you are in the greatest danger of coming to annoying conclusions.”
This is a difficult philosophy to live by, especially in an age where everything seems to be geared towards making us speak before we think, think before we read. YouTube videos flash surveys at us that demand to be answered in fifteen seconds, apps on our phones ask us whether we’re enjoying the experience of using them after every other use, and social media posts about current events urge us to demonstrate solidarity (or, in some cases, heated dissent) by publicly displaying our views as fast as we can. And as soon as the Internet picks up on our socio-political leanings, we’re then shown only content that’s been tailored to people with those inclinations.
Unless we decide to forfeit most forms of technology (as Lebowitz herself did), the situation poses a serious problem. We start to accept popular opinions or our initial inclinations without a second thought. We begin to expect simple, 280-character answers to deeply complex questions. Thus, whatever opinion we latch onto at a given moment receives little to no resistance.
Working against this is certainly easier said than done. It’s tempting to express your opinion about something as soon as you feel sure of it, especially if the topic at hand is emotionally charged, exciting, and/or important to you and society at large. And it seems fine, at face value, to just leave it at that — once we’re locked into a certain opinion, it can be hard to see the value of engaging with opinions we disagree with.
There are several cases to be made for exercising deliberation. The first and most obvious one is that it gives you more time to develop stronger and more nuanced arguments. It helps you question your own opinions and prevents you from doing quick research just to confirm your own bias. Even if you aren’t actively reading about and discussing a topic, simply letting thoughts and ideas about it ferment in your head can, and often will, produce higher-quality arguments. It might also help you avoid the embarrassment of a regrettable online post after you come to a different conclusion later — a point worth considering as anything you post on the internet is permanently open to others’ scrutiny.
Another, less frequently mentioned benefit of giving yourself more time to formulate an opinion is that it can enhance your listening skills and give people the space they need to share their most private beliefs with you. I experienced this firsthand when I was studying abroad in the UK. When I withheld my opinion on the war against Ukraine and expressed my willingness to hear their views, a Russian international student very eagerly explained to me the perspective of many in support of Russia. Although I disagreed with them, hearing their views was an invaluable experience because it gave me a more holistic understanding of the situation at hand. I might not have had such an opportunity if I had condemned the war as soon as we had sat down at the table. You don’t have to agree with who you’re listening to, but do your best to understand their viewpoints — for your own sake, if no one else’s.
That was a rather extreme example, but there are more times than I can count when listening to someone’s different perspective helped change my own convictions. I’ve found that it’s often dangerously naïve and arrogant to believe that I have the perfect argument that could somehow persuade everyone and that anyone who doesn’t understand it is somehow lacking in morals or intelligence. Good listening entails recognizing that anyone might have an insight you didn’t even know you needed. Listening well will compel those you listened to to hear your own opinions and thus to re-evaluate their own views. Even if they vehemently disagree with you, just by engaging with their arguments, you plant the seeds of your ideas — or the weaknesses of their arguments — in the back of their own minds. The Golden Rule also applies here: listen to others as you would like to be listened to.
Lastly, exercising deliberation will often make your voice that much more effective. Everyone’s voice is important, but the reality is that not everyone’s voice is equally heard. In an age of countless platforms filled with vast seas of opinions, it’s never been easier to express yourself and, simultaneously, find it harder to be heard. Taking the time to formulate well-informed, well-developed, and well-expressed opinions will help you build your own platform and gain trust with your audience, whether they’re anonymous readers on the internet or your family and friends. People are capable of recognizing a well thought-out argument, and I’ve found that most of them will respect one when they see it — even if they completely disagree.
Deliberation is good and all, someone might say, but what about urgent issues? Urgent issues are often important, but I want to argue that that’s exactly why they require deliberation. Hasty decisions can (and often do) worsen the problem at hand or do very little to solve them. This is especially unfortunate when people begin to confuse any action taken to address the issue as being sufficient when it is not, and the problem strikes again and again. Slow thinking can be the fastest way to an effective solution.
Another possible counter-argument that’s worth mentioning is the rather ugly truth that complex, nuanced opinions just don’t get as much attention as simple, provocative answers. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you should compromise the quality of your own opinion for the sake of delivery. There’s a balance to be struck, and the best writers are often those who can find the ideal equilibrium. (There’s also the problem of how the ways in which we communicate encourage overly simple arguments, but this deserves its own discussion.)
So slow down. Listen. Think deeply. Ask questions. Read. Accept that you probably know less than you think you do. And if you want to make a difference, find a way to express it effectively. The amount of time it takes to get there will really depend on the topic or the issue at hand. More often than not, it’s a never-ending, cyclical process. Deliberation isn’t just for writing papers or opinion articles. It’s an art that should be practiced daily.