A friend on social media recently posted to ask the difference between facts and opinions. I assumed they already knew, but it is a useful exercise to ask ourselves that question periodically, and ruminate on what constitutes truth and honesty versus lies and manipulation. The following is an abbreviated version of my own assessment, please take from it what you will. You are also encouraged to share your own perspectives in the comments. United States readers, please exercise your right to vote next month.
Facts are, ideally, bits of information for which there is widespread consensus as to their validity, achieved through independent and unbiased evaluation with reproducible results. This is essentially the scientific method, writ large to cover non-scientific subjects. Consulting documentation from a variety of resources that yield the same answer is usually indicative of something factual. There is consensus that gravity exists, for example, and no one is going to suggest water is any other compound but H2O.
Are facts absolute? Not always, and not always indefinitely. This is another lesson science can teach us: today’s conclusion may not hold up tomorrow, if a newer, better tool of evaluation is made available, or the same tools do not yield the same results as those found previously. This demonstrates the importance of peer review, and continued repetition of experiments and observations.
An opinion is a personal interpretation of observations and experiences that lead you to a perspective or conclusion that may or may not reflect reality. Opinions are important, as they can illuminate another side to a subject or condition that others may not have entertained previously. The overriding emphasis here is on “personal.” You may share this opinionated definition of “opinion” with me, or you may have a different description. Perception is very much reality for individuals in abusive households, toxic workplaces, and similarly oppressive conditions. The reality of the abused will differ from that of the abuser.
A lie is a knowingly false assertion disguised as fact. The important aspect here is intent, not the tidbit of “information” provided. A lie essentially has an agenda, or is used to further an agenda. An agenda is irrelevant to a fact. Let me repeat that: an agenda is irrelevant to a fact.
One can argue that politics and religion are the least fact-based endeavors of humanity, overrun with agendas, opinions, lies, and manipulation of the English language. This is because the principal agenda is one of power-seeking, or maintaining power that is owned already. Any matter of genuine importance to the citizenry is fair game for twisting, depriving, or enforcing in order to strengthen the power of those with existing privilege.
The worst kind of lie may be in architecting a false agenda and assigning it to the opposing party (and “party” refers to any individual or group, political or otherwise). We see this abuse committed repeatedly in campaign advertising leading up to elections. Marketing professionals are ninja-level experts when it comes to manipulating language to trigger the desired audience response. “Defund the police” is graphically equated with a flaming cop car by opponents of those who seek accountability of law enforcement, for example.
How can we avoid becoming susceptible to lies, distortions, and manipulation? Dust off the dictionary and keep it handy. Avail yourself of dependable fact-checking sources online. Be more personally inclusive of people of color, lesbians, gays, transgendered persons, non-binary individuals, and others who suffer from a profound lack of privilege and respect. Broaden your circle of associates to include those who may be of differing political or religious affiliations.
Cultivate a sixth sense of truth- and motive-detection. Ask whether media use of the word “democracy” is habitually conflated with “capitalism,” for example. Such exercises can help unmask hidden agendas, in this instance related to the preservation of concentrated corporate wealth, as opposed to an altruistic pursuit of justice and equality for all, regardless of privilege.