A better life comes from learning to distinguish between fact and opinion | Whale’s Tales

One night in 2016, my wife, Ann, and I were cruising through the vegetable aisle of a local supermarket when a stranger rushed up, pumped his clenched fists in our faces, and yawped loudly, “Yeah, Trump won!”

We’d never met the guy, so we cannot say for certain if he meant to be a flaming butthead or simply assumed we felt as he did and would share in his sense of triumph.

What like encounters have shown me is that in the various forms brazen, disrespectful, self righteous, or smack-in-the-face-inviting, take, that old gink, was not unique. It seems to be a sign of the times.

When I come across people like that, faces bright red, spittle flying, eyes bugging out, I give a listen to what the fuss is about. Most of the time, I walk away thinking, “Folks, what you’re wigging out about is not worth it.”

That certainly was the case with an incident that appeared in the Auburn Reporter’s police blotter years ago. Seems a mother and daughter got into a punch-up with each other at an Auburn McDonald’s over this momentous question: which was cheaper, a Big Mac or a Whopper? Last time I consulted the heavens, the comparative prices of burgers was not inscribed thereon as one of life’s immutable truths.

Here’s the lesson I draw from this: it’s reasonable to assume that many issues that set us apart, are, in the final summation, not worth that old plugged nickel. They are opinion.

Here’s the thing about opinions… no, not that! It’s that they don’t stay fluid forever. Too often they calcify in the mind into something the mind’s owner calls “fact.” Fact merely because it comes from him or her and they are never wrong. And not only are you who hold a contrary opinion wrong, you’re the devil.

I see it on the internet. Some person, let’s call him Smith, reveals the slightest deviation from what another person, let’s call him Jones, believes. And without a twitch of grey matter, Jones, who has never met Smith, smugly asserts he knows everything about him from just a word or two. Jones, it turns out, is a “communist,” a “baby killer,” “hates the USA,” is “a religious fanatic,” a pervert, and what’s truly awful, his great grandparents voted for George McGovern in 1972.

No thought at all that the insulted Jones may be – most certainly is – nothing like the tropes Smith is hurling at him.

This virulent strain of self righteousness often develops in persons who are isolated, with no one to check their off-the-wall ideas and guide them safely back to planet Earth.

How much better life would be if more of us possessed the skill to distinguish between fact and opinion. And in the wisdom gained, grant each other the right to hold our own opinions without screaming or pumping our fists in their faces or trying to beat the daylights out of the other.

Often this tendency involves dehumanizing the other; making the other guy an “it.” When we make the other an “it,” in the philosopher Martin Buber’s terms, it’s easy to treat that person in all sorts of nasty ways. All the niceties and courtesies that oil the wheels of civility are disregarded. When we regard them as a “thou,” however, we treat them from the get-go as worthy of respect and reverence. And worth hearing out.

This is a skill worth remembering and cultivating in ourselves, especially in these fractured times.

Robert Whale can be reached at rwhale@soundpublishing.com.