DeFrates column: We need a new word for groundless ‘opinions’
Merriam-Webster’s dictionary opened its pages to a host of new words in 2016: Aughties, snain, glitten and jockumentary being among my favorite. Look ’em up.
Although some of us, myself often included, are resistant to new vocabulary that was not present on our third-grade spelling tests, language must be able to change and grow along with our culture. Most new words arise from unexpectedly popular inventions, widely adopted trends or a few highly influential voices.
They appear because our language needs them, or at least really, really wants them. As per Newspeak in George Orwell’s novel “1984,” without a word, a thought cannot always be clearly expressed. The words we know shape our thoughts and actions, expanding or limiting our access to abstract concepts and self-expression.
Sometimes, however, our language is not keeping up, and we need to give it a little nudge. Today, although I probably lack the influence to do so, I will humbly introduce a new word which I think our culture and language is sorely missing right now.
The word is “prefact.”
But before I define it, it is important to understand the need that summoned it. And in order to see that need, we must begin by cementing the difference between fact and opinion. So here is a quick review, which, according to recent assessment data, is desperately needed in our country today.
(If you don’t need it, don’t worry. I’ll keep it short, try to offend everyone equally, and hopefully we all walk away a little less likely to burn our democracy to the ground.)
Fact: A fact is true, or not, regardless of whether it is popular. It must be something that is measured quantitatively, proven or certain in any objective context. Facts come from reliable sources. Not sure if a source is reliable? Ask any sixth-grader what it means to “triangulate” a source during a research project, and they will explain that there must be at least two other reliable sources saying the same thing.
And yet “fake news” makes headlines … Moving on.
Opinion: Opinions often use words like “best,” “worst,” “terrible,” “beautiful,” “nasty” and even “dangerous.” These are subjective words that have a slightly different meaning to every individual who uses them, and cannot be proven true. Opinions come from interpreting facts, or making an inference based on evidence or experience. They vary greatly due to everyone’s values, faith and life experiences. Opinions, and the open debates surrounding them, are the foundation of our country’s strength.
Or at least they should be.
This is where our linguistic need comes into play. The definition of “opinion” has become too broad. It now stretches to cover every whim, preference and inflammatory, unexamined claim under the same category as carefully thought-out interpretations of fact or deep, personal reflection.
Yet because we were all raised with the old adage, “everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion,” we are forced to give them the same weight.
Here comes the offending everyone equally part: I believe that to be considered valid, opinions, as mentioned above, require research, reflection or reliable sources. This information must then sifted carefully through the matrix of our values, experience and faith. So that when we state that opinion, we are prepared to defend how we came to it, what facts we are interpreting and how they are shaded by our deeply personal understanding of the world.
But these valid opinions are constantly put on the same playing field as those that exist solely to fulfill the narcissistic promises of social media. The ones blurted out with bristling pride and a complete lack of foundation. And people shy away from debating them because those other, so-called “opinions” cannot be argued against. They were created before any reasonable investigation into the subject: prefact, if you will.
So here we are. A prefact is a statement which is basically saying, “I think this for no other reason than I thought it.”
Some prefacts are harmless preferences like, “Strawberry is the best flavor of ice cream.” That is, of course, ridiculous because no one likes strawberry, and there is no research to back up such a preposterous claim. But hey, everyone’s entitled to his/her prefact. “My prefact is that leggings are still not pants.” Sure, why not? I just admitted it’s not based on anything, that it just happens to be what I think.
A prefact is what we used to call an opinion, but one that is formed without research, little or no reflection, and not a single reliable source.
Imagine how powerful this could be if people apply this dichotomy in friendly discussion. “That’s just a prefact.” And then their friend could say something beautiful like, “No, it’s actually an opinion, and here’s why …” leading to a glorious, thoughtful debate. Or, they could respond, “Yup, so what?” And that is also somehow liberating. It relieves the listener of the kind of the hopeless rage that comes from talking to an angry, formless mass, while the speaker is still allowed to make noise. Try it like this:
“My prefact is that the only way to survive the next four years will be in a bunker deep in the mountains.”
Lindsay DeFrates needs the help of a few social media giants to make this stick. If they have a sexier-sounding word that could mean the same thing, that would be fine, too.
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