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Three words that can make a difference

EDITORIAL
The Advocate-Messenger

There are three little words that don’t get said enough in our modern, social-media-saturated world. They are three words that could ease a lot of tensions, reduce conflict and restore friendships.

No, it’s not “I love you” — this isn’t a sappy pop song. The three words are “I don’t know.”

Almost no one is willing to say “I don’t know” anymore. Instead, everyone has an opinion about everything, even when they have very little information on which to base those opinions.

People read headlines and think they already know everything in the accompanying story. They see memes and single-sentence posts on Facebook or Twitter and adopt those soundbites as their own perspective with no critical thinking involved.

As a result, we now live in a hyper-partisan, rage-fueled political climate where cooperation and compromise are considered dirty words.

Headlines tell you what stories are about, but they can never tell you the stories themselves. If they could, newspapers would be nothing but headlines and reporters’ jobs would be extremely easy.

Social media websites are designed to be viral, not informative. The popularity of Facebook posts and Twitter tweets are based almost exclusively on catchiness, controversy and vulgarity. Facts have little or nothing to do with the number of shares and retweets your friend’s opinion gets.

When you base your understanding of a topic off of a single tidbit of information like that, you leave a lot of space to be wrong. That’s not necessarily a problem on its own — no one can be fully informed about everything and everyone has areas where they only know the broad strokes.

The problem is not that people don’t have all the answers, it’s that they’re perfectly comfortable pretending like they do based off of very little actual data.

If you could only see 5 percent of a photograph, it might be fun to speculate on what else is in the photo. But to assume you know exactly what the other 95 percent of the photo contains and demand that anyone who disagrees with you is wrong would just be silly.

If you read just the chapter titles of a book, your brain might have enough to make up a story that fits, but whatever you come up with will be very different from what’s actually in the book.

If you wouldn’t assume the rest of a book or a photo, why would you assume the rest of a news story or current event? But people do it all the time.

There’s no room for nuance anymore. Thanks to social media and the internet, everyone is addicted to “understanding” the world through soundbites that turn every issue black and white. Instead of reading in-depth about a few things that interest them and being OK with not having opinions on other issues, everyone wants to know just the superficial details about as many things as possible. They want to have an opinion on everything.

You can see where this leads: a whole bunch of hot air and very little actual knowledge.

Saying those three words — “I don’t know” — is how you begin to free yourself from this trap.

If you can get comfortable saying “I don’t know,” you can avoid saying things that turn out to be false; you can avoid lending your voice to hype trains that are nothing but smoke and mirrors; you can help prevent the spread of ignorance.

Saying “I don’t know” lifts the burden of having to state an opinion or prove yourself. It opens the door to further questions and communication. And it just feels good to be honest.

If everyone would take a breath the next time they feel like spouting off about something and ask themselves how much actual knowledge they have on the subject, we think a lot of the superfluous opinions would go away and there would be a lot more “I don’t knows.” The world would be a friendlier, more informed, more productive place as a result.

Is there any chance we can actually make that happen? We don’t know.