Sunday, July 26, 2015


About a dozen links to a column on opinions landed in my social media feed today. So I read it. and the following line caught my attention:

There’s nothing wrong with an opinion on those things. The problem comes from people whose opinions are actually misconceptions. If you think vaccines cause autism you are expressing something factually wrong, not an opinion.
There's a problem with that. That's not the definition of opinion.
noun opin·ion \ə-ˈpin-yən\

1  a:  a view, judgment, or appraisal formed in the mind about a particular matter
    b:  approval, esteem
2  a:  belief stronger than impression and less strong than positive knowledge
    b:  a generally held view
3  a:  a formal expression of judgment or advice by an expert
    b:  the formal expression (as by a judge, court, or referee) of the legal reasons and principles upon which a legal decision is based
The author goes on to say: "Nor does the fact that many other share this opinion give it any more validity."

Under this logic, the fact that many people draw a bright-line distinction between facts (correct or incorrect) and opinions does not mean that they have an accurate understanding of any difference, given the dictionary definition of the word "opinion." There is nothing in the dictionary definition of opinion that prevents a misconception - or a correct conception, for that matter - from being a person's opinion. Okay. So allow me to let Mr. Rouner (who, incidentally, gives no reason why he should be regarded as an authority on what constitutes a valid opinion) off the hook for the dictionary definition of the word opinion, and concern ourselves with the connotation of the word.

For many of us, opinions are different from facts. "That cell phone is black," is a fact, while "Black is the best color for cell phones" is an opinion. This jives with Mr. Rouner's statement that opinions are those things that cannot be verified outside of the fact that the holder of the opinion believes them. And that's fine. But it's not the only valid connotation of an opinion. In a culture that seems to have raised arguing (or bickering, if you prefer) into an art form, sometimes you don't want to have the mount a thesis defense of everything you say. And that has given rise to a use of the word "opinion" to mean: "something that I believe to be true, yet I am unwilling, unable and/or unready to mount an in-depth defense of at this time." Or, and this comports with the definition given by Merriam-Webster: "something that I believe, but do not know with certainty."

One of the points that Mr. Rouner makes in his column is that opinions have no bearing on the reality of a situation. Whether someone is of the opinion that the Holocaust is a historical fraud or that the ancient Egyptians were displaced sub-Saharan Africans, these understandings of history don't actually alter history. In fact, they don't alter much of anything. So why bother caring? I noted the opinions called out in the column as things that are actually simply incorrect:
  • "Vaccines cause autism"
  • "Slavery was not the driving cause of the Civil War"
  • "The Holocaust was fake"
  • "Whites face as much discrimination as people of color"
  • "Planned Parenthood is chopping up dead babies and selling them"
It seems to me that the whole point behind this column is to allow people on the Left to feel comfortable attacking wrongthink under the guise of separating out opinions, which are not subject to tests of proof, from facts, which are. Okay. But what useful purpose is served by attacking wrongthink? What is served by browbeating people into either claiming to believe what you believe or admitting that they're foolish or uninformed, other than ego inflation for those doing the browbeating? For a person to whom the Flag of the Arny of Northern Virginia is a symbol of their Southern heritage no amount of telling them "no, that's not an opinion - it's a misconception" is going to convince them that their grandfather or great-grandfather was essentially a proto-Nazi. And being unable to argue that point directly, "it's just an opinion" becomes an attempt to disengage from the debate.

As obnoxious as it may seem to allow people to persist in wrong thoughts, perhaps it's also the wisest course of action.

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