Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Fact vs. Opinion: How not to Get Your Burger

“One problem is,” my friend who is a college professor recently said, “there seems to have been a breakdown in the distinction that high schools used to teach between fact and opinion. Students don’t know the difference when they get to college.”

I recall that this same friend used to complain about how poor students’ grammar was when they came to college to be taught by him. He used to say that he was disheartened when he would grade their first term paper in his class. “They don’t know the principal parts of English verbs,” he would remark. “One—a very bright one who has gone to medical school—even thought that the participle of take is ‘tooken’!”  And he would then lament that they know not how to place a thesis statement, how to develop the argument and present the evidence in the body of the paper, or how to summarize the evidence coherently and offer a conclusion that demonstrated the thesis statement.  These were, in the old days when we sat in a local bar and enjoyed a beer or two, what he used to complain about. 

But he has been complaining much less frequently about grammar for quite a while now, or even the way that their paper writing skills are deficient.  “Are they writing better?” I queried. That’s when he offered me the opening quote of this blog.

I’m not sure, though, that he’s right this time.  He knows a lot—he’s a college professor, after all—and I am but a humble writer, albeit with a decent command of English principal parts.  Yet I think what he’s calling the failure of the high schools to distinguish between fact and opinion might only be part of a wider societal problem.  So, perhaps he’s half right.

How so? For better or worse, the lines that once helped define societal norms have been blurred or erased.  Upon seeing Artemsia’s cunning action, Xerxes once hyperbolically lamented that his men had become women and his women, men. Now, of course, that would not be hyperbole. It would be politically incorrect, for sure, and beyond that, quite possibly literally true.  Nor is the expanded version of marriage what it once was; some have married trees,[1] others animals,[2] and others not others (even if they are seeing someone else).[3]  Moreover, if certain social pundits are correct, it will be expanded yet again.[4]

Caveat lector: societal “norms” are admittedly not always right. Jim Crow laws were once enacted in roughly thirty-five states, which would comprise the greater portion of the country and in that sense were a “norm” for much of the United States. But they were wrong.  Norms are simply conditioned responses; sometimes good ones, sometimes, not so good.  To take a current example, whether one should be allowed to marry more than one person can be seen as a legitimate question.[5]

But we are getting a bit far afield. Such a question can’t possibly be settled in a blog.  But a hint can be given: that question’s answer lies and will always lie exclusively in the realm of what Plato called the forms, some religious people, Heaven. Maybe an earthly example of that was on display this morning (American time) with the beautiful and deeply touching royal wedding of Harry and Meghan.  It reflected the “form” of marriage (which Christians call the union of Christ and His bride, the Church). Harry and Meghan took their vows before God, and it sounded like they meant it.  If they did, they were acknowledging that even for royals, ultimately the sense of right and wrong—in this case reflected their vows—does not come merely from society or from the individual, even a royal individual, but from God.

In closing, let’s get to the naked truth: if truth is left to the individual, if a Burger King closes, you might just strip naked to make your point about being upset that you didn’t get a burger because there is no “wrong” to prohibit you from doing so. Or, perhaps more poignantly, giving one’s thesis defense in one’s underwear is okay, too, if it makes the point (about not allowing to be told by anyone what you can or can’t wear). Since there is neither wrong nor right, why not make your point (about your burger or required attire) in such a dramatic fashion?[6]  It is, after all, just a family restaurant or a thesis defense.  If, conversely, it is “wrong” to behave thus, then doing so falls roughly under the category of what my friend called valuing opinion (feeling that one has the “right” to go naked) more than fact (a professor actually being in charge of the class and prohibiting indecency of any kind at the thesis defense)–if, in any case, my friend is even half right when it comes to fact vs. opinion.  But whether you agree with him or not, here’s another naked truth: if you decide to make your point in such dramatic fashion in the real business world (other than the business of a stripper, of course), you are not very likely to keep your job, and, though your buns will be exposed, you won’t get your burger, either.







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