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Rob me of my Right to an Opinion? No comment

Not having an opinion can not only be therapeutic (if a little tricky at first), it can get you out of sticky situations, both personal and professional, writes Aditya Mani Jha.

ADITYA MANI JHA  28th Dec 2013

Illustration: Rashmi Gupta | Dev Kabir Malik design

s baare mein aapko kya lagtaa hai? ("What do you think about this?") is a question journalists ask so often, that every time we get down to klik-klakking the gory details on our keyboards, it becomes a sort of internal white noise. When our interview subjects say something we like, we express our approval by festooning their opinion with quotation marks, like wrapping Christmas gifts in stockings. When it's something that seems blatantly dishonest, we cheat by expressing our own contrarian views — or by grabbing hold of the words and twisting them between our palms until they appear to rest at a comfortable, italicised 60-degree angle from the truth. The good people at The Sunday Guardian, my long-suffering Editor included, are aware of my opinion on opinions. And on cricket, dogs, Terence Malick, esoteric mathematical games, the Aam Aadmi Party, Lady Gaga and the relative merits of the office canteen and the downstairs chai-wallah. Thus spake the editorial diktat a week ago: "Between your articles, and your Facebook timeline and your Twitter feed, you have an opinion on everything. For the next week, you'll have an opinion on nothing." The conditions were strictly applicable while I was in the office, and subject to the honour principle while on my own time.

What did I think of this? Plenty, truth be told, but I bottled it up — them be the rules.

Work-wise, the difficult part about this isn't the inability to praise something (a book, an article, a song) that really appeals to you. The difficult part is an eyesore (a clumsy sentence, crappy lunch or TV headlines like 'Asaram ka nangaa sach' (Asaram's naked truth)) absolutely crying out to be ridiculed; and the sinking feeling that there's a smashing in store, just not at your hands. There were attempts to bait me, some of which went like this: "long-winded, multi-clause sentence ... what do you think?" I kept my guard up, mostly. I don't think, and therefore, I am, good sir. On the one occasion that I slipped up in an open and notorious manner, I blurted out, "Yaar, all of a sudden I don't think this is such a good idea." I was greeted with a forbidding smirk and a curt, "Who asked for your opinion?"

Thus spake the editorial diktat a week ago: “Between your articles, and your Facebook timeline and your Twitter feed, you’ll have an opinion on nothing for the next week.”

he surprising fringe benefits of this 'opinion ban' became clear once I tried to implement the same in my personal life. Imagine a chap in the early stages of a relationship, something often called 'the honeymoon stage', for reasons beyond my comprehension. (Call me crazy, but isn't a honeymoon that which happens after marriage? And isn't marriage seen as the end of all fun by the same sort of people who use phrases like 'the honeymoon stage'?) Such a person is likely to be pelted with all sorts of (affectionate) questions. For instance, what do you think looks better on me, the red or the black? Do you think this poem I wrote is amateurish? Don't you think Hemingway is overrated? Once in a while, you also get the odd question that will stump most people in most weeks, let alone this one. ("What do you think happens when triangular paradigms are used to problematise or understand oppositional patterns in sexualities?")

Questions like these are best answered with: "I'm sorry, sweetheart. I have a note from my doctor... I mean Editor."

The word 'op-ed' is often erroneously expanded to the binary 'Opinion/Editorial', while it is actually derived from 'opposite the editorial'. This is because the first op-eds (in the 1920s) were printed on the page opposite the editorial section. As the concept evolved, the op-ed also became a way of accommodating opposing views within the same set of pages; an Editor's tool for having the cake and eating it too. As such, I'll always remain sympathetic to journalists who understand that there is no such thing as unadulterated truth. Whether the adulteration, so to speak, adds to or steals from the substance of the story; depends entirely on the writer. The trick, then, is to approach op-eds like you would a burning stomach — seek out as many opinions as you can, but go with the one which feels right in the gut. In my opinion, that is the fairest way one can tackle a week like the one I went through.

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