When the revelations about Jimmy Saville’s abuse of children came out several years ago my friend, who thinks I am often quite naive, said, ‘I suppose you always thought that he was a nice man, didn’t you?’
Actually, I have always disliked Jimmy Saville, mainly because my parents disliked him. When it was his turn to host Top of the Pops I’d frown at his daft antics. At that age I adopted pretty much all of my parents’ opinions and to a large extent I still have them.
Even though I have always disliked Jimmy Saville it hadn’t crossed my mind that he spent the better part of his life abusing children. It only occurred to me when I heard it on the BBC news and my guess is that this was also the first time it crossed my friend’s mind too. After all, he isn’t one of those bitter people who routinely attribute malice to everyone else. Yet after the news of Saville’s abuses broke my friend was under the impression that he had known about it all along. We sometimes forget that we didn’t always know what we know now.
The extent to which my opinions are determined by the people around me came home to me this week. When Mohammad Ali died, my opinion of him was the same as that of most people: Ali had been brash, witty and intelligent until Parkinson’s disease struck. This opinion was formed simply by absorbing what most other people thought of him.
An hour ago I listened to the latest Radio Derb podcast and I now have a different view of Ali. According to John Derbyshire, Ali was a man with a low IQ: his IQ was twice tested at 78. He thought up a couple of catchy phrases and got great mileage out of them but there was no depth to him. He was apparently easily taken in by the racial grievance mongers of the Nation of Islam and changed his name from Cassius Clay. He was probably also manipulated by people in the boxing world.
I did a quick mental reconnaissance of all I knew about Ali, all I had heard him say and the interviews I had seen him in and had to admit that there were no real grounds for my view that he was a particularly intelligent man. I had just gone along with everyone else’s view. The fact that he was black probably helped in all this. If Tyson Fury were to come out with some Ali-esque bon mots I doubt the world would think them quite so bon.
All this matters to me because of what it shows about my world view, which appears to be built on the very insecure foundation of hearsay. I rarely ask myself where I got my beliefs from.
It would be nice to think that over time my opinions become more my own and I become better able to distinguish reality from mere gossip. Yet I’m not convinced that this is the case. Perhaps all I did when I revised my view of Muhammad Ali was to exchange an unexamined opinion, which I had acquired by osmosis, for a slightly better examined view, which was based on the opinion of one of my intellectual heroes, John Derbyshire.