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Fact? Or Opinion?

In the throes of political season, impassioned ideologies abound. It’s inescapable, from the endless stream of television commercials to the unexpected Facebook rants that pop up each day.

Witnessing this from a distance (an intentional distance because I just don’t want to play along), I’ve been evaluating the fodder. What I’ve noticed is that people no longer use the words “I think” or “In my opinion.” Instead, every position is presented as if it is a fact. It doesn’t matter how exaggerated, how extreme, how indefensible or how improbable a position may be – there seems to be a growing sentiment that if you believe something fervently enough it must be true.

This leads to rumor-mongering, biased storytelling, a lack of public discourse, a proliferation of pundits talking over each other, and a woeful lack of genuine, bona fide facts.

Do we know or care what the difference between fact and opinion is anymore? According to the dictionary definition, the two ought to be clearly discernible:

Fact: Something that actually exists, reality, truth. Information that is proven, not subject to interpretation, absolute.

Opinion:  A personal view, attitude or appraisal. A belief that has insufficient grounds to prove with complete certainty.

But the edges seem to have blurred. It used to be that only the facts were reported in newscasts. Now, there are so many commentators who skew the views that even if what they say is factual, it is selectively presented so that it is taken out of context. The incomplete telling of a story changes how it can be interpreted. Facts, as the definition shows, are not subject to interpretation. Handling facts in this way makes them more like opinions – without all the information, they become beliefs with insufficient grounds to prove with complete certainty.

It’s not just the cable news networks, not just talk radio, not just bloggers, and not just commercials sponsored by political action committees that blur these edges. This has become a widespread practice.

When’s the last time you heard anybody give a truly balanced account of a political, religious, or controversial event? People nowadays tend to take sides and then seek information to support the side they’ve chosen. Fewer and fewer people keep an open mind, look at all the angles and then make a determination. Doing so has fallen out of favor – in mid-September, undecided voters were portrayed as absolute morons in a Saturday Night Live skit. This was before a single presidential debate had given voters a side-by-side comparison of the candidates.

In addition to accepting how these edges have blurred, we seem to have accepted that dogmatic rants are the new norm. When and how did these arrogant, tedious and often ludicrous pundits become high-paid entertainers? Their ratings keep going up, and our willingness to engage in meaningful, open-minded discussion keeps going down.

It used to be that one never talked about politics, religion or sex in polite company. What happened? Are we any better off in a society that speaks of nothing else? And are we really talking when it’s just a contest about who can talk the loudest and drown the other voices out?

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