A meditation about this notion that you need a post in some organization and hence a platform from which to air your views.
Being one of those cursed with an opinion and damned with the inability to suppress it, I have on rare occasions been advised, by some who are kind enough to think I have something worthwhile to listen to, that I should join an organization (non-governmental, governmental, whatever) and get elected into an office bearing position. This is so I have a ‘platform’ from which to express my views and would be taken more seriously because of that platform and would have every possible of travelling further and wider than I ever could as a mere citizen.
There are some obvious implications to this.
First, unless I hold a position in some organization nobody will listen to me. Second, in Malaysia, people only listen to those who appear to have some authority and an office bearing position is sufficient demonstration of that authority. Third, my words only have weight or authority when matched with an official sounding position. Fourth, there is a distinction between citizens with a platform and those without.
Though I can appreciate the narcissistic appeal of such advice (who hasn’t had the thrill of introducing one’s self as ‘President’ or ‘Chairman’ or ‘Very Important Person’? – actually I haven’t), I have great trouble subscribing to it because of certain thoughts that have a fair deal of influence with me.
The first is that the validity or strength of an opinion or criticism lies not as much on the person presenting it but on its accuracy to reality, faithfulness to logic and fairness to circumstance. If the opinion or criticism lacks any of these elements then it is not simply worthless, it is dangerous.
The second, since the presenter is secondary if not irrelevant to validity, their role to the opinion or criticism is also secondary. The importance lies in dissemination and that depends on the persuasiveness of the presenter. That persuasiveness lies in firstly the validity of the opinion and secondly the manner of its presentation. The elements of persuasion lies in intellectual clarity, precision of expression and compassion with the audience.
The third, a valid opinion persuasively presented will find resonance with some and not with others. For those that do, they will forward or pass it on to those who think they may find it of interest. There will be some amount of naturally occurring dissemination with varying degrees of resonance depending on the time, place and issue. Those opinions that find greater relevance and resonance to the times will travel further and wider. It has currency because of its validity.
I personally think that dissemination is not dependent on The Law of the Few theory posited by Malcolm Gladwell in his book the Tipping Point, which felt more like a theoretical rationalization than an attempt to describe the reality of dissemination. The Wikipedia entry also reports the following:
In 2003, Duncan Watts, a network theory physicist at Columbia University, repeated the Milgram study by using a web site to recruit 61,000 people to send messages to 18 targets worldwide. He successfully reproduced Milgram’s results (the average length of the chain was approximately six links). However, when he examined the pathways taken, he found that “hubs” (highly connected people) were not crucial. Only 5% of the e-mail messages had passed through one of the hubs. This casts doubt on Gladwell’s assertion that specific types of people are responsible for bringing about large levels of change.
The fourth, opinions like people have a life span and an inherent velocity. Their extent depends on the elements time, place and issue. These elements influence the naturalness of its life span and velocity.
The fifth, because there is a naturalness to an opinion’s life span and velocity, we (as the creator of that opinion) should seek to preserve it and not seek to artificialize it by modification. Some may fairly argue that we must do all we can to promote our ideas or opinions so that it finds traction and resonance with others. I agree with this to some extent but the powerful opinions need no artifice to support it or ensure its longevity.
I find support for this in the great literature and myths of our world.
An example: Niccolo Machiavelli’s book ‘The Prince‘. Written only for the Lorenzo de Medici, it was subsequently published in 1532, 5 years after Machiavelli’s death. Now you can find it in proper bookstores in Malaysia. It took a few hundred years to get here and everywhere else. Understandably so. Weighty ideas tend to move slower, but there is an inevitability about them.
Another example: Socrates. He had no job never mind an office bearing position. Never wrote a thing. All he did was question. His only platform was a sincerity towards the idea of truth. And his name, his words and his philosophy transcended two thousand years. He demonstrated that the smallest grain of truth can be the most painful toothaches to the powerful. In a toga.
Sixth, truth is not the province of an authority, an intellect, genius or the wise. A stopped clock is right twice a day. Even a fool has hidden pearls of wisdom for us to learn from. Wisdom passes us by when we expect it in a noble or grand form.
The sum of all these thoughts persuades me of the irrelevance of my position where it concerns the validity, strength and resonance of my opinion. A position may facilitate or ease its receipt or even acceptance by others but it does not guarantee it.
In fact, holding a position may hinder my ability to express a true opinion as opposed to a compromising one. Because when we speak for an organization, we cannot simply speak for ourselves. We must account for others and my words must encompass theirs too. The expression of the needs of many does not always align with the needs of the few or singular.
I would also be limited to the issues that an organization represents. If I am in an office bearing position in a health non-governmental organization, I cannot start giving opinions on my dissatisfaction with the financial improprieties that explode on our front pages every so often.
Then there is also the in-house politics of an organization to contend with.
In sum, no, I don’t think I, or anybody who has something worthwhile to say, needs a ‘platform’ or position from which to speak from. I am tempted to think that those that exhort such methods actually want to have a position but try to find a nobler more acceptable reason to justify it.
The true scaffolding of our message and words are its fidelity to the truth and reality.
Without them, all the positions in the world will not have the strength to hold up what we have to say.