I never imagined I would hear an asiatic man say: I believe the white race is the superior race. But it is what I heard while watching an episode of BBC’s Queer Britain. The BBC show which explores unique issues in the gay community on this episode addressed preference and prejudice. With an interest to understand when preference becomes prejudice, Queer Britain sort the expertise of asiatic author Alexander Montgomery (who wrote a book titled The True Confessions of a Potato Queen – about asian men who have sexual preference for white men). To support a point he’s made about the ethics of honesty, about how people are prone to censor themselves at the detriment of truthful expression, Montgomery said: “A lot of times people consistently are being held back because they are afraid of other people’s opinions. If that person doesn’t feed you, if they do not fuck or finance you, their opinion does not matter to you. Just live your life.” I was shocked.
Three reasons fuelled my state of shock:
- The use of an awful idea to support a decent idea.
- The awful idea – other people’s opinion shouldn’t matter to you – is a popular idea. (I, for example, have found myself say it.)
- The man declaring white supremacy is Asian.
Scenarios like the one presented by the asiatic man fill me with a kind of curiosity, the kind which runs amok until it is reined in to a place of satisfaction. So I have decided to use this piece of writing as a means to explore why an idea like other people’s opinion shouldn’t matter to you occupies a large space in the world and influences each one of us in our interaction with one another, because ours is a world divided by discord and disunity and it is important to arrest bad ideas which assist in bolstering the division, so as to replace them with ideas which can help us lead better lives and build a better world.
It’s Not a Completely Awful Idea
On a harmattan’s afternoon ablaze with heat, in efforts to arrest a bout of boredom, I watched YouTube videos. As it is typical of YouTube some videos were lined as recommendations so I picked the one which guaranteed delivery of something interesting: A conversation with celebrated Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She served an expected dose of remarkability; the bit which floored me came when, in speaking about the sense of self-ownership and self-confidence that comes with growing older, she said: “[At a point], you look in the bag of fucks to give and realize it’s empty.” The applause was explosive. Here was a person who knew about perspective and the human need for validation, yet possessed a near super human ability to exercise perspective to demonstrate her lack of need for validation, especially when it came with conditions from people who existed outside her realm of the known. Her position could be stated simply: What others – people I don’t know – think and say about me is of no concern to me.
It can be tempting to take Adichie’s remark at face value. But it is helpful to contrast it with another remark she made as quoted by KitoDiaries contributor, Dennis Macaulay. With focus on the mindset useful to having opinions Macaulay offered the Chimamanda quote: “The aim is not to be neutral in all matters, rather you should have opinions on everything, strong opinions at that, but they should be humane, informed and from a broad minded place.” To compare both remarks is to recognize a paradox: that to perform a certain kind of self-care a lack of care must be accorded to certain details of existence, one of which is often suggested to be the content of other people’s opinion. But this raises one question: How is it possible to have an informed opinion when I exercise a lack of care with respect to the opinion of others?
1989 was an extraordinary year for Stephen Covey. It was the year he published his breakthrough book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. One idea he described in the book posits the following: It is important to maintain focus on things we can do something about, things we can accord direct influence. He calls the space which holds things we can do something about our circle of influence. It would not be a stretch to say Stephen’s book helped push the idea of focusing on things within our control into mainstream culture. As Stephen describes, the opinion of others as it relates to us exists outside the circle enclosing details of existence we can accord direct influence – and we must accord active care to dismissing the urge pulling us to focus on things existing outside this circle of influence. What this does according to Stephen is expand the circle of influence, so that it grows to overlap the circle of things which pull our emotional and mental involvement but exist as things we can do nothing about. He calls this second circle holding things which pull our emotional and mental involvement but exist as things we can do nothing about our circle of concern.
It is with this Stephen’s view I tend to see the world, hence my shock upon hearing the asiatic man push for a lack of care for what people think. To hear him was to become intimate with the idea that the best approach to navigating the world is through a lack of emotional and mental involvement with details of existence (people) capable of building policies, starting wars, and forbidding benign kinds of love, all of which would affect me in unimaginable ways were I or anyone to adopt the approach. What I love about Stephen’s recommendation of laying focus on things within our circle of influence is that it holds a valuable insight for all of us: It suggests how we can cause effects on things which exist beyond our direct influence: Each of us, given Stephen’s insight, has a theoretical chance of changing those around us, and by extension the world.
Adichie’s position given the joining of her seemingly disparate remarks can be interpreted anew. Rather than seeing it as what others think is of no concern to me it can be seen as what others think exists outside the circle of things I can accord direct influence, and I have a bias towards giving attention to things I can accord direct influence. With this interpretation, we can set our sight on an alternative route to navigate the world. The best route isn’t through adopting an I-don’t-care attitude it is through recognizing that to influence the opinion of others requires a selective kind of ignorance. One alive with a care for separating things which deserve concern from those which don’t, so as to steer the influence we have towards best directions. This raises yet another question: Is it best to place the opinion of other people in the circle of concern or beyond it, in the space of no concern?
Identity and Self-worth
Someone might say I am taking it too far, that I don’t care what people think is simply an expression used to demonstrate a need to preserve headspace. If I wear a dress I like and a person expresses distaste for the piece of clothing, I am at liberty to exercise lack of concern so as to focus on things worthy of attention, things I can influence.
It is at this point I like to bring up a story of a classmate in secondary school: I will call him Xeno. Like most mornings in senior secondary school, Xeno, a boarder, had taken his shower, donned his school uniform and went on to partake in morning assembly. But on this day he noticed something odd: Students were looking at him differently, and after a brief glimpse they would turn and laugh before scurrying to pull the attention of other students. Xeno found this strange. He was the reclusive type and it was not the norm for students to shower him with attention. Still he continued his day, feeling a bit buoyed by the attention. He walked on to class to meet the same reaction. He smiled along until a girl walked up to him to say, “Your zipper is down.” Not only was Xeno’s zipper down, what it was supposed to keep on the inside was dancing about on the outside as he walked. Needless to say Xeno didn’t tell the girl to keep her opinion to herself. He cupped his hand over his groin and ran to the boy’s toilet.
There is a sense in which I don’t care what people think suggests a dismissal of the opinion of others even before one has had the chance to engage it. In this sense, it is a violation of the mechanism of perception: that we can train others on how to treat us by how we present ourselves to them which depends on an awareness of what they think, irrespective of whether we respect their opinion or we don’t. The approach also violates the ethics of observation: which suggests there is better value to be attained from accounting for a detail of existence than there is for dismissing it. Had Xeno reached out to the first pool of students to ask about the source of their laughter maybe he would have saved the plot of his dangling misgivings from being heard by the entire school.
This story, in addition to revealing that what other people think has power, reveals what other people think about you has power as well. This is worthy of note because when talking about the placement of other people’s opinion within the space of concern the argument often comes down to, yes the opinion of other people deserves concern but not when it has to do with you. The you in this context often points to identity – the nature and running of our lives and the details of which make up its totality. But it does. Even given the context of you the opinion of others is best placed in our circle of concern – and Xeno’s dangling piece of identity attests to this. Recognizing this suggests the presence of something else (rather than the opinion of others) as the detail of existence in the space of no concern but (that is) somehow connected to the opinion of others. It turns out there is.
To get a sense of the detail of existence connected to the opinion of others we must turn to founder of Y Combinator and essayist Paul Graham. In his essay titled Keep Your Identity Small, Graham makes the following statement: “People can never have a fruitful discussion about something that’s part of their identity. By definition they’re partisan.” One thing often found attached to the identity of most people is self-worth (which is often confused with self-esteem). But it can be dangerous to have these two things connected. Because the true danger of caring what other people think comes not from being concerned about what people think but from taking on the project of checking and trying to prove the validity of our self-worth through the content of their minds. The thing is a lot of things feed our sense of self-worth (as attached to our identity): Wealth, intelligence, political position, race, religious affiliation, class, etc., and these things are themselves tied to the opinion of other people; two particular hotbeds of identity are politics and religion – there isn’t a threshold of expertise for expressing an opinion. Self-worth connected to identity (which in turn is connected to the opinion of others) is fertile ground for personal and interpersonal instability. Recognizing that the two details of existence – identity and self-worth – exist independently is to truly understand what the expression what others think of you doesn’t count means. Self(-worth) exists outside the scope of subjection of anyone. It is the worth we place on our sense of self that exists (and should be placed) outside our circle of concern.
This applies to not just what others think of you but also what you think of your-self. I have a friend who says I am so stupid whenever he makes a mistake, like forget where he placed his car keys. But his declaration of his stupidity often points to a detail of identity we can call his ability rather than to a detail of existence we can call his self. It is worthy to note that he uses the same mouth to say I am so smart whenever he impresses himself, like remember of call his girlfriend on her birthday. His identity shifts but this does nothing to his self. The worth he accords his self will only be swayed if it is attached to all the shifting features that make up his identity.
It is true preserving headspace is of paramount importance (especially now with the relatively recent development of social media) but having an eye for the happenings within our physical space is also important. People’s opinion exist within our circle of concern but the illusion of its connection to self-worth deceives us into thinking it doesn’t count. It counts when the detail of existence under consideration is identity.
Other people’s opinion shouldn’t matter to you is misleading in how it seduces us into indifference about details of existence which affect us. It arrests our potency for initiative and keeps us inactive, forcing us to remain paralyzed to things which we can influence to affect things we cannot.
One of my favourite songs is Beautiful as rendered by Christina Aguilera. One line in the song – I am beautiful, words can’t bring me down – points to a useful truth. More of us should adopt this truth. It begins by doing away with declarations of indifference feeding off misplaced interpretations of the world. It begins by understanding words as a detail of existence cannot as a matter of possibility affect me; I as it points to self exists beyond the subjection of details of existence and it is this – the possibility of subjection as it relates to self – which should remain beyond concern, words may play tricks on other details of existence like thoughts, emotions, and the opinions of people but these are bits of identity of which separation from self exists and can be maintained. It begins by understanding that in a collective effort to better the world it is important to care about what people think because the content of their thoughts can colour the emotional and mental climate within which we spend most of our lives, and we would need to influence the details of existence we can tweak to ensure the climate rises towards a more conducive one for all of us.