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. Read the rest of this entry »