As mentioned in a prior post (“Matters of Opinion: the Triumph of Passionate, Ignorant and Irrational Conviction in America”), defining exactly what opinion is can be a bit tricky. But recognizing opinion when you see it is rather simpler; and even simpler still is understanding when something is not opinion.
Which brings us to turn the mirror on this blog itself. This is not a blog of opinion, but a blog of fact and analysis. The blog’s mission statement includes the following sentence:
We offer solid fact without becoming pedantic, and personality without becoming bogged down by opinion.
This has been re-worded several times (at one point it said “without relying on opinion”), largely in an attempt to fend off the gotcha squad — or, as Michael Moore calls them, the wacko attackos. These are individuals who deem it a matter of great importance to attempt to discredit information and ideas that clash with their beliefs, and so they comb through these posts in a quixotic quest for an instance of “hypocrisy” or “contradiction”. (You’ll often spot them when they quote back every little thing you say, followed by a snide retort which they believe to be a refutation.) Evidently they believe that if they can find a single such instance, then they can discard the entire blog with a sigh of relief and a smirk of triumph. And the possibility of finding an opinion in these pages is perhaps what entices them most: find just a single opinion, they seem to believe, and they can safely conclude that the blog is nothing but opinion.
This blog is not about me, and I’m not going to allow anyone to make it about me. I don’t consider it a matter of great urgency to defend myself from attacks — indeed, I consider it of little to no consequence at all. But sometimes the gotcha squadders commit blunders which it can be instructive to examine. And they commit several in their obsession with opinion.
The most obvious mistake they make is to conclude that a statement to the effect that a blog does not focus on opinion can be taken as a claim that it contains no opinion whatsoever. Which of course is patent nonsense, and illustrates how ideologues often zero in on the one interpretation that best suits their purposes. It’s impossible for anyone’s writing of any length to be utterly opinion-free (at least in my opinion). Of course you’ll find occasional opinions here. Even though this is not a blog of opinion, the door is open to it; it’s just never the guest of honor.
The second point is that what opinions you will find here concern relatively minor matters. I might mention in passing that I consider the Beatles to be far superior to the Rolling Stones, and you would not be wrong to classify that as an opinion (albeit a highly qualified one — I happen to have a rather extensive background in music). But since this is not a blog about music, such an opinion would never be the central concern of a post here; it would only be used to expound upon meatier topics.
But the most significant error the attackos make is to confuse, or deliberately conflate, opinion with subjectivity in general. As we discussed before, opinion is only one type of subjectivity. If I begin telling a story, and start laughing, that’s clearly a subjective response. But is it an opinion?Or have I merely flavored my telling of the story? Someone else might tell it using exactly the same words, but begin crying. The subjectivity of the teller would be very different, but how could our respective renditions be called a difference of opinion if the wording is exactly the same? If I say “this story always cracks me up”, is that an opinion? Nope; it’s just a statement of fact. And if I say, “I think this story is very funny”, that’s also, strictly speaking, a statement of fact; but in practical use it’s so indistinguishable from “this story is very funny” that we might as well call them both opinion.
I especially hear the “that’s just your opinion” refrain from Second Amendment fanatics — not surprising, since they are among the most reactionary of demographic groups. (That’s an observation, not an opinion). Which just might be a good reason why they should not own guns in the first place. (That’s speculative analysis, not opinion.) Although if they did, it’s quite possible that they would take up the slack by committing violence by other means. That’s speculation, which is also not opinion.
I certainly speculate frequently here, and you often can spot it by qualifiers like perhaps, possibly, it well may be, etc. But even without such markers, the speculative nature of the comment is clear enough. And it would be a mistake to assume that I intend such statements to represent undisputed fact. It sometimes would be a mistake to assume that I even believe them myself.
One of the most curious, and therefore most frequent, attacks I’ve received from the gun gallery concerns my comments about the killer of Trayvon Martin — specifically, that he was “aggressively stalking” Martin. Aha! they say, this is clearly an opinion. Nope. Granted, the choice of words is subjective — our word choices are always subjective, in my opinion. But still, those words describe solid facts established by the evidence including a recording of his call to police.
You may say that he was armed and Martin was unarmed, and he made some unfortunate disparaging verbal references (calling Martin one of “these assholes” and a “fucking punk”) to a person about whom he knew nothing except his race, and chose to disregard the dispatcher’s instructions to stay in his vehicle and let the police handle it, and gave pursuit on foot to confront someone he erroneously regarded as a crime suspect but who in fact was minding his own business (unlike the killer) even after expressing concern because the youth was supposedly coming toward him, and the ensuing confrontation was a big misunderstanding that spiraled out of control and resulted in the inadvertent death of an innocent person. I say he was aggressively stalking the kid. You say to-may-to, I say to-mah-to. It’s a difference of diction and attitude, not a difference of opinion. It would be a difference of opinion if you said that Martin got what he deserved, and I said that his killer ought to be locked up.
It’s very common these days to lump all subjectivity under the banner of opinion — essays in the media, for instance, are commonly referred to as op-ed pieces, apparently on the assumption that any type of essay/ editorial must hinge on or be infused with opinion. Opinion often is present to one degree or another, but not necessarily so.
For example, you’ve probably surmised if you’ve been following these posts that I am not a charter member of the Dick Cheney fan club. I make that fact known at every opportunity. But my expression of my distaste for the man is not opinion, nor is it opinion when I recount his many vile misdeeds that prompt this response in me. They are all matters of verifiable record. What would be an opinion would be if I stated that he is unfit to empty Lord Voldemort’s chamber pot with a soda straw. After all, it’s entirely possible that such a task would in fact be ideally suited to his particular gifts.
Speaking of public officials appointed by Supreme Court fiat, it once seemed rather anomalous to speak of court decisions as “opinions”. A judge’s task is presumably to interpret law and the constitution, not to mandate opinion into law (even if opinion inevitably comes into play). While it may be semantic hairsplitting to differentiate between interpretation and opinion, there is a distinct line between ruling based on how one reads the constitution or the law and ruling based on one’s personal ideology. At least there once was.
The current majority of five “conservative” justices, however, have crossed that line repeatedly and blatantly. The watershed moment was Bush vs. Gore, in which among other things they halted the Florida recount because it was their opinion that protecting Bush’s claim to victory was more important than finding out who really won. (No, that’s not an exaggeration.) This arrogant act has paid off in further dividends for the worshipers of opinion; the “president” they installed was in turn able to appoint two young replacements for members of their gang who were running out of gas, assuring a steady stream of such rulings for at least a generation. Most recently, these five male Catholics decreed that religious conviction takes precedence over law — at least provided the religious convictions are their own and the law is one backed by a president whom the wingers have determined to despise at all costs.
If you would have a little practice in identifying and distinguishing between observation, analysis and opinion, try reading a few movie reviews (of which I’ve written quite a few in my time). All three are generally present in any given review, and they’re often organized in more or less discrete chunks.
Typically, a review will begin with observation and analysis. How long is the film? Is it in black and white or color? Is it a comedy, drama, thriller, slasher, mystery, satire, sci-fi/ fantasy, or some combination thereof? Who are the actors, writers, directors and designers? Does it appear to be influenced by Hitchcock or Bergman or some other master? Does it contain elements of film noir, nouvelle vague, or cinema verite? There may be some subjectivity, of course, involved in answering such questions. The answers sometimes may even cross the border into the Domain Of Opinion. But there are usually definite “correct” answers that even critics can supply. (That’s a joke, critics.)
Then the second part of a review tends to focus on opinion. Is the ending effective? How well did the cast perform? Is the pacing good? Is the gore excessive? Should Woody Allen have quit while he was ahead? There are no definite right or wrong answers here. (Well, except maybe for the part about Woody Allen). Such opinions will give the readers a better idea of whether or not they should see the film, based on their opinions of the reviewer’s opinions. But while reviews almost always contain opinion, and often are largely opinion (or at least highly opinionated), that isn’t always the case. When I wrote reviews, I considered it more important to give prospective ticket buyers an idea what to expect for their buck than to bring the world up to speed on my personal tastes. Accordingly, I kept opinion in the background just as I do with this blog.
The next time your immediate impression is that something in a review, or a blog post, or anywhere else, is opinion, you might want to take a closer look. You may find that you’ve been painting with too broad a brush.