This Is Just My Opinion

This is going to seem like an extremely petty post to some, perhaps most people, but I really need to get this out there. If I hear one more person conflate “opinion” with “belief” I am going to scream. I have very little rational basis for this; after all, if one relies on the Oxford English Dictionary definition of the two words (and I often do), they are almost functionally identical. OED, you have failed me for the last time. AGAIN!

But in many cases language is more about the connotation of words rather than their literal definition. When we speak of opinions the connotation is that there is a connection, however tangential, to the real, provable world of facts. That’s not to say all opinions are supported by facts; “in my opinion, vanilla ice cream is the best ice cream” is a valid opinion. It is not supported by facts, unless you consider the existence of vanilla ice cream to be factual support. But it at least has a direct connection to the world of provable facts (i.e. I can prove that vanilla ice cream exists.) Even professional opinions need to have some connection, no matter how tangential and tenuous (and hear I’m thinking of lawyers) to the world of real, provable facts.

Belief is a different matter. You can believe in anything you want, regardless of its relationship to the world of provable fact. “I believe in Santa Claus” is a valid statement of belief. “I don’t believe in love” is another. Neither has any connection to the world of provable fact (unless you put stock in either the official NORAD Santa tracker or the love tester at your local bar.)

Somewhat like the humble atom, the difference is small yet significant. When you claim it is your opinion that God exists, that is very different from saying you believe God exists. Your belief in the existence or non-existence of God is your own business, same as your belief in any entity that can’t be proven or disproven. But once you move it into the realm of opinion, you are asserting that it has at least a tangential relationship to the realm of provable fact, which it by definition does not. The same holds true for many other things that people state their “opinion” about.

This may seem like I’m “just arguing semantics”, and if you think I am, you’re right. And there’s another phrase I take umbrage with. Let’s see if the Oxford English Dictionary can redeem itself: “the branch of linguistics and logic concerned with meaning.” Ah, now that’s the OED I’ve come to depend on to back up my righteous claims to moral superiority. But in all seriousness, saying “you’re just arguing semantics” is like saying “you’re just arguing economics” or “you’re just arguing law.” Words have meaning. Using them incorrectly results in hash brown goes flipped nuclear sauce. When we already have enough trouble communicating even when we use the same word (“Do you like me, or do you, you know, LIKE like me?”), we’ve got to start using the right word at the right time. It won’t save the world, but it will change a small part of it. At least, I believe it will.