Growing up, my English and history teachers were big on differentiating fact from opinion. Facts were irrefutable; opinions were up for discussion. The key to any debate, any essay, was presenting enough factual support for your opinions that your audience couldn't help but see things your way. My college religion professors added an extra layer to this by differentiating between Truth (big "T") and truth (little "t"), the former being a sort of cosmic fact and the latter being a kind of mortal opinion. To use a religious example, Truth is whether or not God actually exists, fact is whatever evidence we have on the subject, truth is whether we think God exists based on the facts, and opinion is whether ketchup belongs on mashed potatoes.
Society, in my experience, has gotten really good at arguing over ketchup like it's evidence for God.
What I mean is that fact and truth have largely fallen out of the conversation when it comes time to express feelings and pass judgment. I think of the posts I've seen on Facebook that discredit an entire belief system or group of people with a single scathing photo caption. It's the social media equivalent of a drive-by shooting; who's going to come limping after you when you've reduced their complex identity and well-founded beliefs to a punchline? And so we passively exchange potshots until the cleverer caption writer prevails, catching countless friends in the crossfire who were just popping in to post baby pictures.
I also think of the political debates I've seen in recent years, particularly this year's first Republican primary debate. I'm registered Independent; I'll listen to anyone who's got the chutzpah to run for President, but I confess that I had a hard time tolerating so much rhetoric and pageantry. The sheer number of participants on the stage transformed the debate into a zoo, leaving only enough time for each speaker to trumpet a few buzzwords before another elephant trampled over their response. The few people who made any effort to explain the facts and personal truths behind their opinions were the ones who held my attention, and whether or not I agreed with them, they were the ones I respected most.
My wife and I feel the same way about the Food Network shows we watch, such as Cutthroat Kitchen and Chopped, where contestants are judged by professional chefs and food critics on the meals they're forced to make within certain parameters. We cheer whenever chef and restaurateur Jet Tila shows up as a judge, because he's articulate in his feedback and consistent in the criteria he uses to render a verdict. In other words, he backs up his opinions with facts, and his explanations hint at a set of personal truths about cooking and competing that clearly inform his opinions.
This is why my wife and I became so disenchanted with Ramsay's Best Restaurant as the series went on. Sixteen of London's best-rated restaurants, representing eight different cuisines, competing head-to-head in a series of challenges that tested their mettle in circumstances both ordinary and extraordinary. The show started off well, showcasing the personalities of the people involved and highlighting the best and worst of their performance, but either the show's editor or celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay himself seemed intent on renaming the show Ramsay's Arbitrarily Best Restaurant.
Nevermind that any sense of fairness went out the window when the participants stopped being treated equally in the semi-finals, or that the show became preoccupied with everything the restaurants did wrong; Ramsay had consistently criticized one restaurant for trying too hard, then gave them the title of Best Restaurant because they tried so hard. Meanwhile, the other restaurant, which had performed spectacularly in almost every challenge, was deprived of the award with no explanation other than that they had "too much heart."
My wife and I were appalled. Yes, we had wanted the other restaurant to win, but the verdict, as far as we could tell, was completely unfounded. But Ramsay's opinion carries a lot of weight in the culinary world, so this flaky opinion that the one restaurant is better than the other might as well be Truth. Not that any of the previous verdicts were defended like a graduate thesis, mind you; Ramsay's descriptions of the food he sampled were typically limited to "delicious" and a few similarly subjective terms, and every vaguely explained decision was invariably "one of the toughest decisions I've ever had to make."
Opinions themselves aren't destructive; it's the way they're used and presented. "Your favorite movie sucks" is not the same as "I'm not a fan of romantic comedies to begin with, but I really don't get any sense of chemistry between Carrot Top and Judi Dench." And "this is the best restaurant in Britain" is not the same as "Gordon Ramsay, through a televised competition of unclear standards and dubious execution, determined that this is the best restaurant in Britain." Let's be clear where we're coming from when we talk, and let's examine the facts before we call people out on their opinions. Let's be sophisticated.