posted 24 March 2007     

The Secret...okay, a different one

Exposing the sham of        
opinion equality        

I was recently reading about Elvis Costello's latest tour date announcements over there on Brooklyn Vegan and for unknown reasons ventured into the comment section. I typically avoid reading comments on blogs because they're almost always written anonymously, and anonymous commenting is a virus I steer clear of, thank you very much, as it so often fosters the double-whammy evil of ignorance and rudeness. My blood pressure doesn't need it.

So there I was, coming quickly upon insults hurled in Costello's direction--one commenter calling him "a shameless moneygrubber," someone else labelling Costello "a fat loser that doesnt [sic] know a thing about quality control."

I will be quick to note that these two pitiable characters were not only in the minority but did not needlessly rile up the crowd there either, as most other commenters were a) respectful of Costello, and b) disinclined to draw extra attention to the woebegone interlopers, not to mention c) quickly moving on to other topics as Brooklyn Vegan has like three thousands posts in one day.

Nevertheless, those two comments--hardly unusual in the social wild west that is the World Wide Web--got under my skin. The online music scene is a paricularly opinionated segment of an opinion-oriented medium. I'm not surprised when I come across inane and mean-spirited comments such as these but this time, I needed to do more than shrug my shoulders.

I needed to let at least one small corner of the world in on what appears to be a very big secret. This secret will not allow you to materialize whatever you'd like to have in your life. But it will, maybe, give you a new perspective on all the knuckleheads you come across online.

You see, interacting in this seemingly fact-free, conflict-crazy battle zone that some like to call Web 2.0, in which opinions fly about fast and furiously, we have gotten all too used to thinking of truth as so relative as to be unimportant. We all have opinions, is the conventional wisdom--it's not a matter of right or wrong, good or bad; at some level, goes the politically correct thinking, all opinions are created equal. The more the merrier! Sure, let's have comments, and comments on comments on comments, and then comments on those.

Once opinions are thus flattened qualitatively (none are "better" or "worse" than others), all the while proliferating like kudzu, they are left to being sorted and ranked quantitatively. Which, in turn, means: those who are either loudest or first (or both) end up the effective "winners" most of the time.

What gets overlooked in this plethora of opinions is that all opinions are actually not created equal.

That's my secret. Spread the word.

Some opinions are better than others. Some (gasp!) are good and some are bad. Calling Elvis Costello a "shamless moneygrubber" is, without question, a bad opinion.

An important point: identifying something as a bad opinion is not merely another expression of opinion. On the contrary, whether something is a good or bad opinion can be readily determined through verifiable definition.


Good opinions are inspired by actual facts and/or are informed by knowledge in the subject at hand. Good opinions do not, by the way, involve irrelevant aggression of one sort of another.

See? That was really easy. Not really a secret at all, it's just that everybody acts like it's a secret.

Conversely: bad opinions are not supported by facts or knowledge and often utilize aggressive energy.

One last point of definition that can help with identification: People espousing good opinions are typically interested in hearing opinions that might be different than theirs; people offering bad opinions typically ridicule differing opinions--that's the aggressive energy at work.

Bad opinions are not the harmless flip side to good opinions. Often bad opinions are no better than slander or lying. They slip out so easily on the web because they are so often expressed anonymously.

Note that it is entirely possible to disagree with a good opinion. It is most definitely and simply an opinion. If in disagreeing with a good opinion you also present a good opinion, then we have the basis for intelligent discourse. Good opinions can be continually discussed in a back and forth manner. The minute bad opinions enter a discussion, you have to be careful, as they have the nasty habit of destroying intelligent discussion. (Ridicule of a bad opinion does not work, as ridicule itself is so often a latent part of a bad opinion.)

If nothing else, it has become interesting to apply this knowledge to the online world around me. In studying the matter further, I've noticed some greater detail about the general subject of bad opinions. I've become something of a bad-opinion-ologist.

I've discovered, first of all, that it can be useful to divide bad opinions into two basic types.

The first I would call a dishonest opinion, which to me is an opinion that is presented as a fact. This is different than an opinion that is inspired by facts; a dishonest opinion is an opinion expressed in such a way as to sound, itself, like a fact of some kind. This is why people expressing bad opinions typically don't want or expect to be disagreed with: their opinions are being presented as facts in the first place, and you aren't supposed to be able to disagree with facts.

The dishonest opinion in turn has both a benign and a malignant variation. The benign variation is what critics of all kinds routinely do: they write their opinions up as if they were facts: e.g. "Radiohead may never stop being a band to admire, but they're no longer a band you can love." (That's a direct quote from a Newsweek review from a few years ago, just so you know; I knew I was saving it for a reason.) This can be aggravating to the sensitive reader but it's relatively harmless.

The second Costello commenter gives us an example of the malignant strain of the dishonest opinion. The malignant strain is characterized by needless and typically personal vitriol ("fat loser"), while, again, presenting opinion as fact.

If a dishonest opinion is one type of bad opinion, the other type might be deemed a false opinion. Now, I know, we are not trained to believe an opinion can be "false," because we always get the qualifier that it's "just an opinion." But an opinion can most assuredly be false if it is contradicted by actual, verifiable facts.

False opinions also come in two strains, from what I can see--call one passive, the other active. The person who called Elvis Costello a "shameless moneygrubber" presents us with a passive false opinion. It is false because it is easily contradicted by Costello's personal history. (Moneygrubber? The man has a history of putting out hopelessly uncommercial albums for pete's sake.) I call it passive because it's just being put out there in a spewing sort of way. The anonymous poster sharing this false opinion was probably not seeking actively to mislead the Brooklyn Vegan audience, nor, I don't think, was he or she (probably he) trying actively to influence the opinions of others. He was just spewing a bit of pointless vitriol.

Active false opinions, on the other hand, are those planted for more nefarious reasons. Fox News comes to mind, as an example. The present Administration's inclination to discredit "reality" comes also to mind. Active false opinions are specifically designed to mislead.

Okay so by this point somebody out there is probably thinking, "Okay, great, so what do we do about any of this?" This is a logical enough question, but as I've pondered it, I've realized the question itself may start us on the wrong foot before we get anywhere. In our culture we always want to know what we can do but in this case it may be better to think, instead, about how we can be with this exposed secret, this new approach to this opinionated medium of ours.

It's really not any one person's job to fix anyone but themselves--a spiritual cliche but like most cliches, true to the core. So it's not your job to fix the bad opinion spewers. It is your job, if you're up for it, to fix your own response to them. Everyone with a good head on his or her shoulders knows you're supposed to ignore incendiary, aggressive, or just plain old too-stupid-for-words comments online. The Brooklyn Vegan crowd did a nice job, in fact, pretty much ignoring the knuckleheads I quoted earlier.

But your response to the knuckleheads isn't just the physical one of: "Okay, good, I read it and didn't say anything back." You also have an internal response, and your internal response, when you read a bad opinion somewhere, may set all sorts of smoke alarms off in your psyche as the steam exits via ear canals. If the remark all but gives you a coronary but, phew, at least you didn't write anything in response, you're not actually ignoring it, are you?

Ignoring the knuckleheads means quite literally reading their awful opinions, saying to yourself, "Wow, what a truly terrible opinion," and moving gracefully on--here, perhaps, arriving at a hint of how, exactly, one can be with bad opinions around you...and maybe even, after all, an idea of what you actually can do. For inspiration I call upon one of the most truly inspiring quotations I've come across over the years, from the marvelous and sadly missed Italian writer Italo Calvino. This quote, taken from his wondrous dream of a novel, Invisible Cities, has been sitting as a sort of buried treasure somewhere here within the Fingertips web site, but because its time has come, because this essay requires it for closure, I bring it to the fuller light of day:

"And Polo said: 'The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.'"

And so you come across yet another bad opinion somewhere. What do you do? You find a good opinion somewhere else and you support it, encourage it, compliment it, internalize it, praise it, allow it to live and breathe.

And here's the risky part: be yourself. That is to say, sign your name to things. Don't be anonymous. If you care enough to be making a comment in a particular community, you should care to be who you really are there. Otherwise, anonymously, you have accepted the inferno and, exactly, have "become such a part of it that you can no longer see it."

We are here, you and I, to recognize what is not inferno right here in the midst of the inferno. It may seem crazier now than in the old days but I have a feeling the human condition has always been thus. Find the good people, always that. Make them endure. Give them space.


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