American Culture

Your opinion vs. mine: where are the facts we can agree on?

Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts. — Daniel Patrick Moynihan

But what about alternative facts? — 2017

CATEGORY: Democracy & Social Mediaby Carole McNall

I’m cruising my Facebook feed when I see an impassioned plea:

“If you disagree with my take on this [and I did], please back up your opinion with facts.”

Reasonable request. I reach toward my keyboard to find the sites I want to cite.

Then it hits me. I ask: “What sites can I reference that you and I will both accept as true?”

He never answers. But the question sticks with me. Later, I ask my friends on Facebook for their go-to sites for checking facts.

Snopes. Washington Post, New York Times, Tribune, Plain Dealer, local papers. NPR, CNN, ESPN. Reuters and the Associated Press. Whois. Buzzfeed. Magazines and the ‘net.

See the problem? Lots of websites from traditional media on that list, which tells you more about the people on my friends list than anything else. The list of websites smacks hard into this fact: A discouraging number of people simply don’t trust the traditional media.

That seems to split along lines of ideology. Snopes, perhaps the best-known urban legend debunking site, is slammed as a tool of the liberals. Repeated debunking of that claim by other fact checkers usually changes no minds.

Which brings us to the mess of civic discourse we call 2017. Arguments spin on the carousel, chasing the elusive facts that might settle things. Sources that once would have offered the final word are now dismissed as having an agenda.

You can hear the results, often, at any family gathering. You can see the results on any news report.

Discussing a current issue, local or national? Without a place to find facts, the shape of the question blurs. We throw words at it and leave, convinced we’ll never find an answer.

Without a place to find facts, those discussions become increasingly vicious. Tough to understand another person’s point of view if you’re sure her facts are wrong. Tougher to discuss it with her if you’ve dumped her off your social media friends list for those errant facts.

Once, the question “why?” coupled with sincere listening might produce a bridge between two points of view. Now, if the “why?” is even asked, it smacks into a wall of “Here are the facts I believe. Doubt me? You’re just wrong.”

I wrote this hoping I’d write my way into an answer. I didn’t. Instead, I’ve circled back to my original question.

Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts. — Daniel Patrick Moynihan

So where did you put those facts we can all agree on? — Carole McNall


Carole McNall, an attorney, is an assistant professor of journalism and communication at St. Bonaventure University.