The Lebowski Gambit: or, A Matter of Opinion

by Tom Ingram

Over the last few months I’ve written several times about people I’ve referred to as “lily-livered opinion-mongers”—the ones who turn up in the comment threads of negative reviews everywhere and demand that “but that’s just my opinion” be used as a hedge. I feel that it’s time for a long-form statement on the subject, clarifying what this phenomenon is and what’s wrong with it. This is something I’ve always wanted to write, but never gotten around to until just now. As a bonus, I am going to weigh in on the Anita Sarkeesian Kickstarter thing, although that’s going to be in part 2. —TMI

“That’s just your opinion”

The first order of business is to make it clear what I’m talking about. In the movie The Big Lebowski, The Dude and his friends, sitting in the bowling alley and shooting the shit, are interrupted by their arch-rival, Jesus Quintana. The following immortal exchange occurs:

Jesus: Liam and me, we’re gonna fuck you up.

Dude: Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, uh, your opinion, man.

What has happened here? Why is this exchange funny?

Jesus has advanced a proposition. Call it a hypothesis. No, even better, call it an opinion. He says that his team is going to beat the Dude in the bowling tournament.

The Dude responds. He does not agree. But neither does he offer a counter-proposition (“no, actually we will fuck you and Liam up”). Instead, he makes a statement that is epistemologically correct, but irrelevant. Of course it’s Jesus’s opinion. He wouldn’t say it if it wasn’t his opinion. The question is, is Jesus’s opinion right or not? The Dude has given us no reason to believe it is not.

This is all funny because it’s in a context—amateur bowling leagues—where there are objective and uncontroversial ways of determining whose opinion is justified. Compare scores of recent games. Factor in practice time. Or even just wait a week and see who wins. The Dude says “that’s just your opinion” when he could say “our averages for the past dozen games are higher than yours” or something like that.

Unfortunately, outside the artificial realm of sports you’re unlikely to encounter situations that are this cut and dry. That’s where “that’s just your opinion” starts to muddy the waters. It can be, and often is, not just a confused statement, but an attempt to shut down an argument by someone who doesn’t like where it’s going.

Why this matters

Outside of the Coen brothers filmography, where are we most likely to encounter “that’s just your opinion”? Discussions of aesthetics, especially having to do with popular culture. This is thorny territory, because there is an important sense in which movie reviews, for instance, are subjective. Most people recognize this, but many go a step further and imagine that because a review is “subjective”, every review is as valid as every other one, and no objective reasons can be given to back up a review. It is strictly a dumping ground for opinion, and yours is as good as mine. My favourite movie is a scuzzy, poorly written explosion-fest? No, that’s just your opinion. My favourite game is viciously misogynistic? Sorry, this stuff is subjective, dontcha know, I learned that word in my high school English class and it’s served me well.

This leads to two things: first, we treat “opinion” as sacred. “Everyone has the right to his opinion.” “You don’t need to back it up with facts or meaningful arguments, it’s an opinion column.” “Hey, don’t get so upset, I’m just expressing my opinion.” This causes us to lower our standards and countenance the airing of absurd views alongside sensible ones as if they were equals (you know this from reading the letters page in your local newspaper).

Second, it causes us to demand that strident voices hedge themselves by making it clear that “this is just my opinion” (as if that wasn’t already clear). This is an attempt to co-opt the crusade against partisan bias (itself probably more trouble than it’s worth) in order to silence dissenting voices. Often, and this is the crux of the point, these are the voices of women or people of colour expressing concerns about racism or sexism. I was only half kidding when I wrote the second-last paragraph of this article. “That’s just your opinion” is often used—is currently being used, right this moment, on certain parts of the Internet—to justify sexism, racism, and all manner of nasty things.

“Opinion” and “bias”, like “sentimental”, are among those words that have a valid use but have been so thoroughly claimed by assholes that we’d do well to simply ban them and start over.

“It’s an opinion column”

We say that everyone has a right to their opinion. This is true, depending on what you mean by “right”. But it’s trivial. I can think whatever I want, in the privacy of my own head. You are not able to stop me, and if you were, you would not be justified in doing so. I can think what I want, uncoerced and unscrutinized. However, once I start involving other people by acting on my opinion or airing it in public, I’ve opened myself up to (certain kinds of) coercion and scrutiny. They say that your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins.

To be more concrete, suppose that I am a slobbering racist. If you were to compel me, through torture, brainwashing, or some kind of surgery, to stop holding racist beliefs, I would be the hero of an Ayn Rand novel and you would be its villain. But there’s a reason why everyone says that Ayn Rand is simplistic: this situation doesn’t really occur, ever. We don’t have the ability to force people to think certain things or even verify what they do, in fact, believe. So I can feel free to think what I like, in the privacy of my own skull.

I kid you not, that is Alan Greenspan.

Now suppose I try to publish a newspaper editorial expressing my racist views. If the newspaper decides not to run it, they are entirely within their rights. Freedom of speech does not imply access to an audience: if I cannot afford a bullhorn and no one is willing to lend me one, my freedom of speech is limited to the power of my shouting voice. Suppose I get up on a soapbox on a street corner and holler racist remarks into the crowd. I might justifiably be arrested for causing a disturbance or, depending upon the content of the remarks, for inciting hatred. Suppose I try to peddle my racist views at work, making repeated attempts to bring my colleagues round to my way of thinking. I could justifiably be fired for harassment, for creating a hostile work environment, or, if there are any speech codes in place, for violation of company policy.

If I not only aggressively promote my opinion, but act on it by, for instance, burning crosses on people’s lawns, then I have committed both a crime, in both the hate and old-fashioned varieties, and will justifiably be arrested. When I protest that it is my opinion that black people ought to have crosses burnt into their lawns, no one will feel an ounce of sympathy for me, and they’ll be right.

If I start publishing pamphlets and distributing them door to door, people are free to disagree with them. Not just in a kissy-kissy, “you have your opinion and I have mine” sort of way, but with forceful, strident rhetoric that does not consider my feelings. If everyone looks at these pamphlets and decides to stop associating with me, they are within their rights.

As you see, I have a right to my opinion, but if my opinion is reprehensible there will be just consequences. This is an extreme example, and I use it because it’s uncontroversial. While the set of racist people is quite large, the set of people who will assent to the statement “frothing KKK-style racism is good and should be encouraged” is not.

To reiterate: I have a right to my opinion. I do not have a right to be listened to, should I choose to express that opinion. I do not have a right to express that opinion in an illegal way (making a disturbance in public, scratching it into the side of a public building with an icepick). Certain extreme opinions may rightly be silenced by the relevant authorities. If acting on the opinion means doing something illegal, I can be arrested. Other people have a right to have different opinions, and to (verbally) attack me for holding the opinions that I do. I cannot cry foul if I find myself short on friends as a result of my opinions.

This is because my opinion is not a sacred thing. I have the right to show my ass in public. You do not have a corresponding obligation to admire it. As John Scalzi put it, “if you want people to respect your ideas, get better ideas.”

That’s just my opinion

First-year composition students are often taught not to use the phrase “in my opinion” in their essays.* In an academic context, “in my opinion” is word cruft. Again: it’s clear that it’s your opinion from the fact that it says “by [your name]” on the title page. The words add nothing unless your opinion is nestled among the opinions of others that you are quoting for contrast.

But there’s an even greater reason to avoid the phrase: paradoxically, it makes it seem as if you don’t really believe what you’re saying. Eliezer Yudkowsky said, “From the inside, our beliefs about the world look like the world, and our beliefs about our beliefs look like beliefs.” When you assert that X is the case, you are actually stating your opinion that X is the case, and it is clear to everyone that you believe this, because you said it matter-of-factly, without any slithering around. On the other hand, when you say “I believe that X” or “in my opinion, X”, the extra care you’ve taken to say that it’s your opinion makes it seem as if you’re unsure of it or lack confidence in it.

This can be rhetorically useful. I used hedges like this in my review of The Windup Girl. That’s because I am a pasty white Canadian man**, and I was writing about racism and sexism. In that context, a certain amount of humility is required from people like me. I used words indicating I lacked confidence in my opinions because I actually did.

Conversely, in my review of The Aesthetics of Music, where I was on much more safe ground, I said that Scruton’s arguments against Susan McClary are not very convincing or detailed, no “in my opinion”. Because they aren’t. If I had used “in my opinion”, I would have been lying by making it seem like I was less sure of myself than I was.

My impetus to finally write this essay came from an ill-advised peek at the comments on a video at The Escapist. I regularly watch Escape to the Movies and The Big Picture, a pair of movie- and pop culture-focused video series written and presented by the Internet personality Moviebob. I do not always agree with them, but I enjoy them—Moviebob is a smart critic and a classy guy. Too smart and too classy for his audience, it would seem, because his comments sections are full of assholes.

They call him snooty for having a realistic view of the week’s blockbuster; he points out that while the remake of Total Recall is an occasionally amusing diversion, it’s poorly constructed and there are much better diversions available, and his audience flips out, calling him a biased critic who states his opinion as fact (a common accusation levelled by assholes against intelligent people).

This is a pathetic and not particularly effective attempt at silencing Moviebob because he doesn’t like something his audience likes (and he’s right). But the truth is, it doesn’t really matter if he’s silenced, except insofar as it matters if any intelligent voice is silenced. This tactic becomes especially pernicious when it’s used against the views of non-straight, -white, or -male folks that we’d rather not hear.

For instance: when Anita Sarkeesian makes her series of videos on gaming, people will use the Lebowski Gambit as a silencing tactic. In fact, I happened across a thread, also at The Escapist, that did this very thing, and the videos haven’t even been made yet.

Before I go more in depth on the Sarkeesian affair, which is the point I’ve been tortuously approaching all along, I should take a brief detour to explain a few more things about reviews and opinions.

Technical philosophical mumbo-jumbo (good thing I read this stuff)

One of the many great things in Scruton’s The Aesthetics of Music is the way he outlines his theory of criticism: the critic does not point to objective, indisputable features of a work of art. Neither does she merely explain her reaction to it. Either one would be vacuous. Rather, she recommends a certain reaction, based on her informed perspective as an expert. The critic gives an aesthetic description of a work of art, and in so doing attempts to change the way we perceive it.

You can give reasons in support of aesthetic judgments. For instance, you might argue that The Dark Knight Rises does not have a clear message. You could point to Bane’s revolution, an obvious anti-anarchy, anti-revolution statement, and contrast that with the strongly anti-authoritarian strains of the rest of the movie and series. You can further point to the movie’s broken structure. The inconsistent message-mongering, combined with the slapdash structure of the script, suggest that the movie doesn’t have any grand statement to make, and the writers included a couple of “meaningful” lines in a desperate attempt to mimic the appearance of depth.

You can disagree with this analysis, of course, but then the onus is on you to provide a counter-analysis backed up with your own reasons. It is not enough to say that I’m biased. Of course I’m biased: I’m human. I find, e.g., corrupt cops being played as heroes to be very offputting. I think I’m right to have this bias, for reasons I’d be willing to list on request. I don’t like Dirty Harry, and I don’t think you should either. If you think I’m wrong, you have to give me a good reason.

This article ended up much longer than I expected, so I’m going to have to split it up into two parts if I want to get it out in a timely fashion. Part 2 will discuss the Anita Sarkeesian affair and how all the points discussed here connect to it.

Next


* So I’m told. Musicians don’t have to take anything like a composition (=academic writing, not musical composition) course, so I’ve never experienced this first-hand, thank God. At any rate, if they’re not taught this, they ought to be. [return]

** Though at present, parts of me are red from July sunburn. [return]

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