Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan

After watching or reading the daily news, I remember my late mother in her early 90s would say to me, “These are the last days. People today are losing their minds, morals and sense of respect.” 

I would always counter with, “Not really. The only thing that has changed is the 24/7 news cycle that harvests and sends out bad news wherever it happens on the globe.” 

I would tell her the old joke, “If a tree falls in a forest does it make a sound?” My punchline was, “Only if CNN reports it.” She never found my attempt at levity either funny or relevant. She would reference the Bible description of the “last days” as irrefutable evidence to support her position. Being raised Catholic, I was never very good at arguing the Bible with my Protestant friends. As such, I would concede my ignorance of biblical references and advance a more secular argument.

Years after those friendly debates with my mother and others, I still hold the belief that human nature, and not the times we live in, is truly the issue. Granted, technology in the form of social media and the so-called digital news speeds events, both important and unimportant, across the globe almost instantaneously. Moreover, the fierce competition for ratings among conventional media conglomerates has radically changed the definition of what is newsworthy content. 

The old adage, “if it bleeds, it leads,” still informs many media decisions. Networks and gossip rags chase ratings, utilizing any means necessary to stay on top. Bad news and salacious celebrity tidbits are creating addictive consumers and undermining real journalism. We seek to consume information that reinforces our biases. We mindlessly slide into our comfortable echo chambers where facts have become passé and name-calling, putdowns and “shade throwing” have become the new currency. If a person disagrees with another’s political point of view, end of discussion. Even Facebook buddies are subject to being defriended or blocked after a testy exchange of political views. There is no real attempt to consider the other side. Sadly, opinions have replaced facts.

The result of this opinion-driven culture is an increase in strident confrontation and a withering of intelligent dialogue. Both the beauty and danger of a fact-based discussion is that “if you’re not careful, you might learn something.” 

To remain civil in a discussion, my late minister suggested invoking four powerful words during a heated argument: “You could be right.” These four words should not be uttered contemptuously or condescendingly. Rather, they should be used to create a white space in which to objectively consider the other person’s perspective. Admittedly, facts can be manipulated, massaged and distorted. However, facts can also be checked and validated. 

Opinions, on the other hand, are subjective and judgmental. While another’s opinion deserves respect, it should be a derivative of some validated fact(s). Lying used to be considered unethical and shameful. Now lying has become the new normal. Opinions have become “alternative facts” used to deny a reality or create, out of whole cloth, another more serviceable reality. Even if captured on video with sound, many would try to convince you that what you see is not really what you saw and what was said. 

Too many of our political representatives have become experts at double talk and deception. A disturbing number in both major parties function as if they are self-appointed and have no accountability to the people who elected them. Few are willing or courageous enough to abandon their ideological tribe or big money patrons and work for us. We, the people, are reduced to spectators cheering on our respective political teams — or casting “protest votes” for one-issue independent parties/candidates. Currently, a cult of personality has taken hold and ignores facts that daily reveal the Emperor is buck naked.

Instead of fawning over and blindly following blowhards and bullies, we should be demanding that fundamental issues of equity, a crumbling infrastructure, acute wage disparity, climate change and affordable health care coverage be given more than lip service. For example, either give us the same health care plan Congress and the President have or guarantee that everyone (including them) have the health plan they pass for us. 

Our country is a representative democracy. Politics was never intended to be a career path or ego trip. Unfortunately, our political system has become show business for second-rate actors. The real purpose of politics is to serve the people — not scare us with tabloid-style antics or appeal to our “lesser angels” of hate and paranoia. 

Each election cycle feels like we are being given the opportunity to elect people to mis-represent us. The future of our democracy depends on an informed and involved citizenry. 

As the late Joan Rivers use to say, “Can we talk?” The future of our great country depends on robust dialogue. 

Kwame Salter, an Oak Park resident, writes an occasional column for Wednesday Journal.

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