The Alabaster Sock

We Will Fight the Threat with Fighting

Posted by Matt on March 1, 2010

The Worst Words #2

Opinion

The Internet has given us many great things. It makes communication easier, it gives people the opportunity to share their talents to a wider audience they couldn’t possibly reach before, it gives us a wealth of information we can access with the push of a button. I’m sure there are many other benefits that I am overlooking, too.

On the other hand, it has helped raised a generation of isolated, self-absorbed children who are never forced to look at the world through any other perspective than their own. With all that information available, it is truly astonishing that most people would rather find places that reaffirm their own preconceived biases rather than actually use this great tool to learn. This is the great tragedy of the Internet.

And this is where opinion comes into play. Opinion, on the Internet, has become the great cop-out, a way for someone to be able to exempt themselves from an argument, especially if they are unable to actually argue a point. It also acts as a shield from criticism, whether it be of yourself or (in the case of most nerd sites) whatever it is you’ve become obligated to defend. “Well, that’s just your opinion” is the weasel phrase, a standard for anti-thought individuals.

It is a problem in the real world, too, where opinion and subjectivity is used by individuals and groups to validate or elevate their position, even if it is obviously wrong. The evolution ‘debate’ is one of the greatest examples of this, where anti-science organizations get to say they are ‘interpreting the evidence differently’, which is utter drivel, and anyone who looks at the facts would know that. But people still let them get away with being factually inaccurate (and, at times, compulsive liars and propagandists) because they, too, see the issue as being a thing of interpretations, rather than what it really is, which is a clear-cut case of reality being challenged by those who would rather live in a fantasy world.

Part of the problem is a postmodern one. Many people have begun to question the ‘truths’ of the world around them, and have been taught that perspective controls everything, and all ‘facts’ are interpretations. While this line of thinking can be beneficial, especially in the highly manipulative marketing-based environment we live in, it does NOT work in all situations. It does not work in the realm of science, which is based entirely around empirical evidence and testing that are as far removed from subjective spinning as possible (not that it is possible to be entirely objective, even in science, but that is no excuse to look at it as just another voice among countless others). And, while a tad more problematic, it has no place in the realm of criticism.

Most of us, being mindless consumers, have come to loathe the critic, whether it be the movie critic, the music critic, or even the political critic. They are associated with negativity, with having arcane tastes, with not agreeing with the majority (and boy, are the majority ever the best judges of anything). Besides, once we apply that postmodern perspective, than they just become another voice. What they have to say is no more important than what some random guy on a forum has to say. It’s all just opinion, right? The problem is…no, no it isn’t.

While there are many lousy critics out there (their numbers bolstered thanks to, get this, the Internet and its lack of editorial standards), to deny them any sort of authority is to be foolish. The average movie critic will see many more movies than you or I ever will; they will also have see a wider variety of movies, they will understand the history of cinema, they will have seen a thousand different examples of good and bad acting, good and bad plot, good and bad special effects (all of which are among things in movies that are NOT subject to much subjectivity; a non-existent story is a non-existent story, no matter who you talk to, and bad acting is bad acting, and so on). They are true film experts, and despite their connection to negativity, the good ones always love what they do, and love movies. Not only that, but the best of the best also know how to think about what their watching, even if it’s mindless entertainment, and then explain those thoughts in a clear manner.

We may not agree with them all the time (see, subjectivity isn’t completely dead, and knowing how to apply subjectivity when appropriate is a sign of real intelligence), but clearly their thoughts on something can be worth more than the average Joe. Just like the scientists who have studied a subject, whether it be evolution, or physics, or the climate, we can put priority on what they have to say, because clearly they know what their talking about. So despite us being told to distrust authority, that’s no reason to disregard experience and knowledge.

None of that matters on the Internet. It is a very modern, very democratic line of thinking that puts everyone on the same level, whether that be the scientist and the guy off the street, or the movie critic and the casual moviegoer. In this mindset, all opinions are equal, and all claims are opinions. The truth is a rare beast, and usually only encompasses ubiquitous, grade-school factoids, like the sky being blue, and turtles being reptiles, and what have you. All other things, animal, vegetable, or mineral, are up for interpretation. And you can’t tell them they’re wrong, because that wouldn’t be polite. Not that they would listen, anyway, not when they have had their opinion reinforced by dozens of other like-minded individuals and whatever phony ‘evidence’ they can pluck from the depths. The Internet has made it much easier to become enlightened, but it also has made it easier to delude yourself into thinking you are right about everything, and never have to confront conflicting views. The echo chamber effect that the World Wide Web provides can be catastrophic to the discourse, turning it into gangs of dittoheads yelling their thoughts at each other without having considered anything that is being said, because they don’t have to.

Clearly, this kind of thinking is wrong when it comes to the real world. The evolution/creationism, climate change, and war/peace narratives are just some examples where all thoughts are valued the same, despite many being backed by, you know, reality, that have a clear impact on the world. However, one could trace this kind of thinking back to the simpler things, the world of arts and entertainment. Since this world is considered one of trifles, no one really puts much thought into how subjectivity/objectivity plays into it, but Creation Museums and angry comments on IMDB all originate from the same irrational ideology, one that says you have every right to think the way you do, even in the face of the better-informed, the more accurate…you get the idea.

What makes the nerd world version of the opinion fallacy worse is that it usually based on less than nothing. A person will choose to disagree with someone about something they have not experienced firsthand. I have encountered numerous examples of forum-goers dismissing the early negative reviews of a game they are looking forward to, merely because they have decided that they will like the game beforehand. They can’t have this predetermined opinion be challenged, so they choose to ignore people who disagree with them. Even if their object of desire turns out to be no good, they will often force themselves to like it, although the opposite (being disappointed in something and then deciding it is THE WORST THING EVER) is also highly prevalent, albeit it seems that you can predict the latter reaction by whether that person has had a bipolar reaction to just about everything related to it.

As could be surmised from the David Jaffe post, I don’t think putting your faith in the masses is a particularly swell idea. Especially when that mass includes people who have make judgments before it even makes sense to. I’ve heard people on forums say things like “I’d take the opinions of people on here over reviewers”, and this is wrong-headed. Unless of course you want everyone to agree with you, in which case that would be the proper path to take. Anyone who is not stupid, however, will know it is wrong.

This mindset is also terrible for the growing communities of artists online. Places like DeviantArt and the like, less real venues for artists and more havens of shitty fan art, are filled with prima donnas who surround themselves with warm, fuzzy comments from their half-wit online friends, and hate being criticized for anything (you know, the kind of thing that Your Webcomic is Bad And You Should Feel Bad was tackling back in the day). This is the opposite attitude anyone who takes pride in their creative output should have. If you write, draw, or compose music, or all three, you have to take criticisms, even angry ones laced with ad hominem attacks, into consideration, because otherwise you will never improve as an artist. This is what the editorial process did back before there was an Internet, but now that editorial process has been shoved into the background, and once again people prefer to be surrounded by praise, and will dismiss anything else as ‘flaming’, ‘trolling’, or the dreaded ‘just an opinion’.

This may be one of my biggest beefs with the Internet culture, which I am very much a part of, as you could tell by how long this article has been. It works in with the previous theme of misuse of the term maturity – the ‘just an opinion’ attitude is another sign of a pure lack of maturity, unable to see any other view but your own, unable to admit when you’re wrong, and dismissive of those who challenge you. It kills any sort of intelligent conversation, it limits imagination and intellectual growth…it’s just an absolutely frustrating thing to have to deal with, and I don’t see it going away any time soon. Thus is the curse of the Internet.

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