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George Rebane: A growing chasm of opinions

“But that’s just your opinion.” Have you ever had anyone throw that little bomb into what you thought was a productive discussion?

Today, when many people talk about important issues in these pre-election weeks, that little retort gets dropped more and more often. Who uses such semantic barricades that not only stop current progress toward understanding, but also warn us that future attempts may suffer the same fate?

In this election season I bring this up as we all attempt to bend each other’s ear on such matters as the marijuana initiative (Proposition 19), gay marriage making another round in court, the ever-popular Proposition 23 to suspend California’s global warming law AB32, promising to kill/create jobs, and, of course, all the choices for local, state, and national offices.



These days we have a passel of things to hash over with people who don’t always share our beliefs. And no matter how often you think that your supporting ducks are in a row to invite a reasoned counter, sooner or later you run into “but that’s just your opinion.”

The American Heritage dictionary gives several definitions of opinion. In the diminishing or pejorative sense described above, opinion is defined as:




“A belief or conclusion held with confidence, but not substantiated by positive knowledge or proof.”

That’s pretty clear and to the point. So, when your counterpart preambles opinion with “… just your …” this added diminution means that even your opinion is of little significance. You are way out of the mainstream, standing alone (or with others similarly disadvantaged), and less relevant than ever. She could instead have used “an opinion” or “one opinion.” But no, tossed back into your lap was “just your opinion,” the penultimate conversation killer.

However, you are prepared and will not be caught short by that curt rejection because – ta-daa! – you have backup. Regaining a little composure after a deep breath, you launch into a well-oiled and reasoned response citing references and connecting all the necessary dots. There, now your offering should be elevated above mere unsubstantiated opinion.

No joy. When once more the answer comes back, “but that’s still just your opinion,” you know you are talking with an obstinate with whom this discussion, and perhaps, any such discussions should not have been started, and definitely should be avoided in the future.

As the conversation now segues into daisy talk, you keep pondering in the background. Maybe at first your argument did look like an undemanding opinion. But then you buttressed it with all the fine supporting factors and data. A more considered and valuable response could either have dismantled your stream of reasoning, or torpedoed a fact that knitted your argument at a critical point. Nope, “just your opinion” is what you’re left with, in addition to the gnawing feeling that this is all that you will ever get from this individual when she finds her position defenseless.

Why is any of this important? Today many people see an ever widening gulf between fiercely held ideologies that each support liberty and equality at the necessary expense of the other. The informed on each side are passionate about how correct their views are, and how maligned, bordering on evil, is the other side. The uninformed have only their raw passion waiting to be directed by someone else’s clever turn of a phrase or two.

How can we stop the widening chasm that was formerly “just” a political rift? If staying together is what we really want, then it can come about by either the force of reason, or a reason for force. I vote for the force of reason which, unfortunately, history has shown to be the weaker alternative – it has always been easier to come up with a reason to use force.

But to let reason be the final arbiter of how we choose our way forward demands that we know that she can also be a compliant handmaiden to the deft of tongue. She can be disguised in outfits and makeup, giving her a different appearance from the vantage each of us has chosen to view her. It will take sincere and patient co-operation to penetrate that disguise, and discover a useful common view.

At the grassroots level, where we all live, aborting a dialogue with “it’s just your opinion” does nothing to heal the breach. It’s a cheap out that only contributes to the chasm. And that’s my considered opinion.

George Rebane is a retired systems scientist and entrepreneur in Nevada County who regularly expands these and other themes on KVMR, NCTV, and Rebane’s Ruminations (www.georgerebane.com).


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