I have thought a lot recently about facts, opinions, and being opinionated.
Being open-minded is important to me. One of my pet peeves is when people do not think for themselves and ask questions. This is one reason I have always felt uncomfortable with calling myself a member of a particular political party. (To this day, I remain officially unaffiliated on my voter registration.) Even with formal education in political science, there are a number of issues that I simply don’t feel confident enough to have an opinion on.
Recently, I was talking with someone I love dearly about a Particular Person who moved to a Particular White Building in Washington, DC on Friday (ahem) and they told me I was very one-sided.
I freely admit that I would be hard-pressed to find someone I have more disdain for than this Particular Person. But I don’t think that means I am not openminded or that I am willing to believe anything about him.
I have often thought that refraining from developing an opinion on something was some kind of virtue. But I’ve realized that it’s not. There are moments and there are issues that demand that we take a side. Moments and issues where remaining on the sidelines can no longer be a neutral act.
I still think it is extremely important to be able to understand all sides of a story or issue. I spent hours reading articles last fall about why people were voting for Trump, and I learned a lot and understand many of the reasons, even if I didn’t agree with them. But that does not mean you have to give each side equal weight. Being openminded does not mean viewing every side as equally correct.
As petty of an issue as it is, the spat about inauguration attendance is the perfect illustration of this. The new Press Secretary of this Particular Person held their first press conference yesterday and lied about attendance, making claims that were demonstrably false. He claimed that there were more people that watched this Particular Person’s Inauguration than any Inauguration before. Period. (You should look on Twitter for some great memes about his phrasing, by the way…)
Photos (comparing 2009 and 2017) fairly definitively prove otherwise.
Now, this is where questioning is important. Just because photos make it seem like there were fewer people, does that mean that is definitely, obviously the case?
But if you just stop there and ignore the issue, claiming that “Oh, it doesn’t prove anything…” or “We’ll never know…”, than I apologize for being brusque, but you are being lazy.
Questioning facts doesn’t mean you stop there. You have to keep going.
So you then have to look at the photos for yourself. Note that the photos from Friday’s Inauguration were taken at the peak time. Note that they were taken from the same angle and approximately the same distance. Okay. Does that mean it is definitely, obviously the case?
You can then read reports/comparisons of metro ridership and bus permits and parking capacity. You can note the televised audience for 2017’s inauguration was larger than 2013 (as this Particular Person boasted on Twitter…), BUT ALSO that it was smaller than 2009. You should also note that these are reported in multiple reputable* sources.
Okay. Now does that mean it is definitely, obviously the case?
Well, no. Is it still possible that there is some kind of fluke that we don’t really know about that really would explain why the photos are wrong? Sure, it’s possible. But how likely is it? You should feel a little doubtful.
You should note that there are very reasonable explanations for this smaller attendance. It was raining. DC’s surrounding areas are heavily Democratic, so this Particular Person’s supporters would have had to travel further than many of Obama’s supporters, for example. Fair enough.
But on the balance we can pretty safely assume that yes indeed, the number of people that showed up to this Particular Person’s Inauguration was smaller than in 2009. We cannot safely assume the reasons for this, but we should be confident enough that we can call the Press Secretary’s claim exactly what it is: a lie. That is a strong word, but please note that it was not reached automatically. (KellyAnne Conway called it an “alternative fact,” but that is just a creative synonym for “lie.”)
I don’t call it a lie because I read somewhere that it was a lie. I don’t call it a lie because I saw the pictures and it looks like it’s a lie. I don’t call it a lie because I don’t like this Particular Person. I don’t call it a lie because I expect lies from this Particular Person’s administration. I call it a lie because I looked at it and I took the time to review and go through this thought exercise that I have described here. Could I/we be mistaken? Yes. But is it likely? After looking at all this information, no. It’s not likely.
Now, I think we can probably all agree that it doesn’t really matter how many people went to the Inauguration. It is a small, petty thing. I have just used this as an example to illustrate how accepting facts does not mean you are gullible or uninformed, and forming an opinion does not mean you are close-minded.
Be wary of facts, by all means. But do not dismiss them.
Facts can be tricky and evasive little buggers. And sometimes they’re not facts at all. But sometimes they are. And by ignoring truth or pretending it doesn’t exist just because you’d prefer not to have to work it out for yourself, you’re hurting yourself and others.
It is neither always a virtue or always a vice to remain neutral. The things that I remain neutral about are those things where I do not feel I have enough information to complete this thought exercise, or when there are too many ways to interpret the data. To be adamant in a point of view then is foolish and requires what I think can fairly be described as blind belief. But the fact of the matter is that there are a great many issues and stories where there is ample, clear information to come to a conclusion. To remain neutral then is simply lazy.
I am not claiming to do this perfectly, but I hope this explains why I do not think it is fair to call someone close-minded because they have an opinion about something or because they believe something. I also do not claim to be perfectly unbiased, because nobody is.
My point is this: there is a middle ground between accepting everything as fact and refusing to accept anything as fact. Whether you’re at one end of the spectrum or the other, I hope you can come closer to the middle.
I’m trying to get there, too.
*For those of you who would rant against the “liberal media,” there is nothing I can say to change your mind, but I would hope you would consider this: “reputable sources” do make mistakes, yes, and they are not perfect nor entirely without bias. But they are widely considered reputable and trustworthy for a reason, and that should mean something. Particularly when the same thing is reported in multiple of these reputable sources (which is why it is crucial to get your news from multiple sources and to seek out sources that you frequently disagree with).
ETA: For more on this topic, you can read this companion post that I published on Medium.