Is it a difference of opinion?

Recently, I have been thinking about the phrase “difference of opinion.” In disagreements when we are seemingly at an impasse, we might say to another person, “Well, I guess we have a difference of opinion.” But here’s the thing: differences in opinion apply to subjective choices. If I like tulips, but you prefer lilies, we have a difference of opinion. Because each of our opinions are based upon our individual preference as “subjects,” neither of us is wrong.

On the other hand, there are objective truths. The earth is objectively round. It does not matter if it is your opinion that the earth is flat. It doesn’t even matter if you believe it with all of your heart. The earth is still round because the truth is based upon the object (earth), rather than the subject (you or me).

This implies that if you and I are in a discussion about the shape of the earth and I insist that it is round, but you insist that it is disc shaped, only one of us is actually right. We can actually verify it. If you say to me, “well, I guess we’ll have to chalk it up to a difference of opinion,” that phrase carries no meaning because we are discussing something that is either true or not true independent of our preference, opinion, or whim.

Obviously, some things are more clear cut. If you say that Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president of the United states and I say he wasn’t, we do not need to do much digging because I am clearly wrong. But every day, we face issues that seem less clear cut, for example around issues like global warming or the benefit of social distancing and wearing masks for COVID-19. When it comes to these issues, we may have “differences of opinion,” but our opinions do not determine what is actually true. We may not completely understand what is true, but it does not then follow that truth is relative.

It becomes even more murky when we get into interpersonal issues. Consider abuse. People may have radically different interpretations about what transpired in a relationship or an organization, but it still does not come down to difference of opinion because there are again objective facts to account for, even if those facts seem murky.

For my part, I think it is important to determine whether each “truth” being discussed is subjective or objective. If subjective, let’s celebrate one another’s preferences. If objective, let us treat one another with kindness and respect, but not write our disagreement off to a difference of opinion. We should also be willing to consider perspectives that are different than our own, while remaining committed to seeking after objective truth. Sadly a lot of the information we encounter on social media is neither science nor opinion, but propaganda posing as truth. Unfortunately, too many of us lack sufficient understanding of science, logic, and rhetoric to adequately determine whether or not information is trustworthy so we double down on our opinions, even if the results may be harmful to us or others.