Monday, May 7, 2018

The Cult of Opinion

Since last week was Marvel week, I have a lot of stored rants, so they are going to be coming fairly fast this week.

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I'm convinced the four most dangerous words in America are "It's just my opinion."

In prior ages, when this phrase was uttered, it was said with a complete understanding of where opinions rank in the grand scheme of things.  It was considered an "humble" opinion for a reason.  They were regulated to Editorial or Opinion sections of the newspaper.  Especially because it was recognized that opinions could and very potentially would be changed.

In society now, opinions are treated as immutable, unchangeable statements of identity.  They are often most loudly and proudly proclaimed when they are in defiance of all other available information.

It's what makes the scene in Inside Out funny.  Where Joy, Sadness, and Bing Bong are on the Train of Thought and get facts and opinions mixed up, quite literally.

Joy: Oh no! These facts and opinions look so similar!
Bing Bong: Don't worry about it.  Happens all the time.

I blame the invention of 24-hour news stations.  Put simply, true news is consisted of facts, verifiable facts, and just the facts.  And the truth about news is that if 24-hour "news" stations only reported news, they would run out of content very early in the day.  To fill time and to provide something that is entertaining and a ratings draw (and therefore a sponsor's dream), such stations fill their days with opinions.  What should be correctly labeled as Editorials.

Let's take a popular context.   If Congress passes a bill, the only thing that is truly news is that the exact words "Congress passed a bill named ...".  Whether the bill is good for the country, whether it has terrible consequences for a certain segment, whether or not you should support your Congressmen for his vote - these are all opinions, not facts.

The constant stream of opinion and the passing of opinion as fact has led us as a society to have a terrible relation with opinions and the truth.  To put it as I have seen written elsewhere, a diet 24-hour news has led to a truth decay in our society.  And lets be honest, all of the 24-hour news channels have contributed to this.  There is not a single one that has truly benefited our understanding as a whole, not even the one that is "fair and balanced."  If you believe this is only a problem for one network or the other, or that there is a major news station that is truly telling only pertinent facts without editorial, you might as well stop reading now and we can talk about a bridge in Arizona I have to sell you.

Our problem is now compounded through the rise of Facebook and "like culture."  The need to create and cultivate our pages where we control the information and surround ourselves by people who affirm our opinions.  That psychological need to see the number of likes we are receiving and to watch that number grow.  It's a constant validation of our opinion and those like us.  Electronic echo chambers, that can continually suck us in.

This has led us to a culture where opinion is king.  To the point of being actually combative to facts.  To the recognition of "alternate facts" (as opposed to outright lies).  "We are creating a world of dummies.  Angry dummies who feel they have the right, the authority and the need not only to comment on everything, but to make sure their voice is heard above the rest and to drag down any opposing views through personal attacks, loud repetition and confrontation."  (Anti-Intellectualism and the Dumbing Down of America).

In light of where we are at as a society, there are a few important things we need to remember about opinions

1) Opinions can be wrong - 
There's the old joke about opinions and how they are similar to a body part.  We all have one and they all stink.  Now while there can be good opinions, it is generally viewed that it is impossible to have a bad opinion or for an opinion to be wrong.  This is not true. You can certainly have a bad opinion.   Your opinion can be wrong.

In this day an age, if you believe the world is flat, your opinion is wrong.  Flat wrong.  It can be easily disproved and there is no rational reason to hold that opinion.  It is in direct contradiction to all available information and facts.  It's a bad opinion.

Additionally, if you have a racist, misogynistic, xenophobic, homophobic, etc. opinion falling into the "all X are ..." camp, your opinion is bad.  If you think that white people are inherently better than black people, brown people, or anyone else, your opinion is wrong.  Or Kanye, if you think that "slavery was a choice" for the African Americans involved, your opinion is wrong.

Opinions can even be wrong in art, where most everything is subjective.  To clarify, an opinion whether a particular piece of art is "good" or "bad" can be wrong, but an opinion on whether you enjoyed a particular piece can not.  "Good" or "bad" can involve identifiable metrics.  Technique, style, composition, form.  There are facts there that can be measured.  Personal enjoyment is just that, personal.  It can only belong to you, whether you enjoy something or not.  So be careful in your movie reviews.

We have to recognize bad opinions and to be able to call people out when they try to hide behind them.  "It's just my opinion" should not cut it anymore.

2) Not all opinions are created equal -
There are levels opinion.  An unsupported opinion is worth less than an informed opinion.  Informed opinions are based on facts, they are based on truths.  Those facts are gathered and synthesized to create the opinion.  Opinions that have no basis in the facts are inherently suspect.  Again, if it is your opinion that the earth is flat, though you have never left your hometown, have not studied the issue, and are only relaying what you observe when you look at the horizon, your opinion is worth less than someone who has flown all around the Earth. 

We recognize this with professionals.  There is a reason a doctor's diagnosis is referred to as his or her "professional opinion."   After all, what a doctor does is collect the facts (the symptoms you are relaying and the measurements obtained from tests and lab work in the office) and come to an opinion on the most likely diagnosis.  We recognize that a doctor's opinion is worth more than the average person's on medical issues.  And we afford them that amount of trust.

This also holds true in most every other form of opinion as well, unless it is truly personal preference.  You will likely encounter people who possess more information and knowledge than you do about a particular subject.  Their opinions should have weight.  They are not always right and do not always have to be followed or agreed with, but they should be given space to be heard, absorbed, and considered.

Which brings me to ...

3) Opinions should be constantly evaluated to see if they need be changed -
Opinions are designed to be changed.  Again, the old joke about politicians and diapers seems to fit here as well.  They should be changed and often for the same reason. 

Our opinions are designed to be impacted by the information we surround ourselves well.  If you are only ingesting information that affirms your current opinions, that is called stagnation.  It's the opposite of growth.  We are designed as people to be challenged by new ideas, by new data points, new information, and then grow from it. 

Our true beliefs, true opinions only gel when they have been tested.  "As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another." (Proverbs 27:17).  The two only sharpen each other when they meet in conflict - blades don't sharpen each other when they are pointed in the same direction.  They have to meet at an angle, from a different perspective, to challenge each other.  To firm up what you truly believe and to change what you do not.  To cut away that which is no longer needed.

If you are only getting your news or information from one source, please start branching out and getting information from a wide net.  I've circulated this infographic before, but it provides a breakdown of news organizations by particular bias.   This page also provides a detailed breakdown of how the original designer came up with the chart and the datapoints that went into it.

At the very least, please recognize the particular bias that your information sources have and start identifying when you are getting facts and when the news personality goes into opinion.

If your circle of friends agree on everything and are all alike, expand and add new friends to your circle.  We need people in our lives that challenge us.  That disagree with us in certain areas, so that we can challenge our own ideas and continue to develop them.  Democrats need Republicans and vice versa.  Calvinists need Arminians and vice versa.  Longhorns need Aggies.

We have to do something now.  We can combat this and we can start to value the truth and facts again.  We just need work at it and keep working.

Just my humble opinion.

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