Opinions and Facts

I read an interesting but painfully true cartoon caption this morning.

You don’t want to hear my opinion. You want to hear your opinion coming out of my mouth.

Too often, that’s true. And the thirst for affirmation is the reason right-wingers watch Sean Hannity and left-wingers watch Rachel Maddow. When we seek confirmation that our perspectives are the “correct” perspectives, we give aid and comfort to the enemy of enlightenment. When we doggedly search for corroboration that our opinions are right and others’ opinions are wrong—skillfully avoiding exposure to information that might damage the credibility of our points of view—we willfully reject opportunities to grow, both intellectually and morally.

As painful as it is for me to hear Sean Hannity utter even “good morning,” I think it’s my obligation to hear, from time to time, what he and others like him have to say. It is difficult, indeed, to weed out opinions masquerading as facts, but it is a necessary obstacle. Even in my left-leaning universe, I often have the same experience listening to Rachel Maddow. While she and I often think alike, I get more than a little miffed when she, like her right-wing counterpart, presents as facts her persuasively-dressed opinions.

It gets worse, though. As much as I hate the phrase and its chief advocate, “fake news” is a real phenomenon. Fox, CNN, and even NPR on occasion stray far, far away from presenting hard facts and, instead, present “information” in a way that supports their very obvious biases. Other so-called news media don’t even attempt to shade or hide their biases from view; they lie with abandon and fabricate stories that, if true, would support their jaundiced perspectives. But the stories they present are, indeed, lies. Deeply biased opinions dressed in “facts” created out of thin air.

One of the problems facing us today is one of our own making: we reward media that strokes our egos and feeds our biases. If facts that fly in the face of our deeply-held beliefs are presented to us, we change the channel or switch to another URL or turn the dial until we find the comfort of a confirming opinion, a voice that agrees with our own.

Truly, we “can’t handle the truth.” Too often, it hurts so much we prefer lies. The media knows we can’t handle the truth. Even when the legitimate media is forced to report information that conflicts with the perspectives of its audience, the facts are presented in ways that soften the blow.

Politicians have learned the same lesson. So they fabricate, stretch, bend, and otherwise do damage to facts so their constituents will continue to support them. A politician who votes to dismantle financial oversight agencies will lie to his constituents, telling them the agencies are endangering constituents’ privacy. In the meantime, he will accept money from financial institutions that wanted the agencies to disappear. And, when constituents begin to suffer from those institutions’ malfeasance, the politician will lie again and lay blame at the feet of the members of the opposition party. Everyone hears what they want to hear, because they have taught the communicators to say what they want to have said.

Until John Q. Public and his female counterpart insist on getting the hard facts, we will continue down the road toward happy but fatal ignorance. I am nearing the point of turning off any media that puts its own spin on reality. While I feel obligated to hear both sides, I think the best way to get there is to get the straight facts, first, then see what both sides are saying about them. In that way, the biases and interpretations can be screened and identified. Or, maybe, one or more media outlets will take a long, hard look at themselves and will insist on getting journalism right. Still, we’ll need to accept the possibility that we’ll hear both facts and opinions we don’t want to hear.  That’s really nothing new, but it’s infrequent.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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