Is it a problem that we all speak in absolutes?

There seems to be an awful lot of ‘vanilla’ conflict in the world. By that I mean people arguing (sometimes even coming to blows) over the most minor of occurrences, such as a difference of opinion, as opposed to people dying in horrible conditions and struggling to survive in war torn or disaster ravaged places.

I’ve just been reading some critics’ reviews of the sitcom Vicious, which premiered on ITV last night. It starred Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Derek Jacobi as an elderly gay couple, whose relationship has descended to the point of misery and bickering. Personally, I loved it. I thought it was very funny (although I found a few lines, such as McKellen’s opening ‘joke’ that were to comedy what a face punch is to a witty retort), and I enjoyed the fact that a show about a gay couple was given a primetime slot and so heavily promoted.

The critics from The Guardian and The Independent hated it. They were put off by what they were sure was canned laughter, thought the jokes were cheap and lacked intelligence, and that the two leads were very over the top. I can certainly agree that there was an element of theatre acting involved, with lots of wild gesticulation and projected voices, but I rather enjoyed that. The two characters were overly camp, but then again it’s a sitcom (for understated, the also excellent The Job Lot fitted the bill perfectly, and was shown directly after Vicious).

Anyway, the shows aren’t really important. It got me thinking about the way in which we voice our thoughts. The comments’ sections underneath both articles were full of people agreeing with the critic, but of course there were the inevitable arguments.

What was interesting about each of these disagreements was that they were started by someone stating their opinion as fact ‘Vicious wasn’t funny’, for example. Well, if the internet has taught us anything, it’s that everyone is entitled to their opinion, as long as their opinion is the same as yours.

We’re all very protective of our opinions, and of the things we like. What we like, love and hate are small examples of the person we are. They say something about us, and we’ve now skipped out a few logical steps on the bridge between someone having a different opinion to us and making a personal attack. If someone makes a comment that clashes with our own views, we must defend our honour, like medieval knights jousting to protect the honour of a woman who probably couldn’t care less about her honour what men thought her ‘honour’ actually was.

Could this be the case because most of us speak in absolutes? Comedies we don’t like ‘aren’t funny’, books we hated had ‘terrible plots’, your best friend’s gorilla is ‘the wrong colour’.

When you remove phrases such as ‘I think’, or ‘In my opinion’, you change the face value of the sentence. Your opinion is being stated as fact. And where people confuse opinion with fact, there are always going to be arguments and disagreements, because everyone has a different world view. It’s true of the world in general that some of the worst people in it are those who hate the fact that we are all individual.

So someone who comments on the review of Vicious and says ‘It was really funny’ is stating a fact, as are the people who said ‘It wasn’t funny in the slightest’. No wonder we argue about these things, because their syntax and lexicon suggests a fact. Clearly, you cannot categorise a sitcom as either ‘funny’ or ‘unfunny’ because there are bound to be some people who find it amusing. Humour is not a universal constant.

But do we need to preface everything with ‘I think’, or ‘In my opinion’? Would that not become overly tiring? Although, how much effort does it take to say ‘Thank you’, as an example. Still too much for some people, but for the polite amongst us, it’s automatic. Do we need to train ourselves up again to categorise our thoughts as mere opinions?

Or is the problem actually that we are losing the ability to read subtext? Once upon a time if someone made a comment such as ‘Vicious isn’t funny’, we all had the ability to deduce from the context that this was someone’s personal opinion. Now, however, we have a tendency not to bother. We take everything at face value, which is why people have to be warned that coffee is hot so they don’t burn themselves and then sue. People can’t be bothered to do that extra brain work.

Perhaps it’s not opinions we are fighting against, but simply the misinterpretation of statements as facts and not thoughts. If someone tells you a fact that you know is wrong, you will likely correct them. So when opinions become facts, they are going to be wrong for someone, who will then try and correct them. Then arguments ensue, and everyone marches off to get their death rays.

As a writer, it concerns me that the idea of subtext could be disappearing, that subtlety is being dropped in favour of blunt observation. A huge part of any art form is the things you don’t say, or don’t show.

If we keep on going at this rate, in another hundred years we’ll back be to just pointing at things we want, then hitting someone with a rock.


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4 thoughts on “Is it a problem that we all speak in absolutes?

  1. I’ve found (over numerous years as an internet commenter and arguer) that the common lack of understanding of the terms ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ are more often than not the cause of internet arguments.

    From a writing perspective I think you’re right, and we do have to use absolutes occasionally, otherwise you’d get lost in a sea of ‘in my opinion,’ and ‘as far as I’m aware.’ However there are too many people – especially in liberal vs. conservative debates (and I include myself in this, unfortunately) – who speak in absolutes: “The tories just want to eat the poor,” “Labour want to punish the rich,” “Stop posting Guardian articles and show me more cats, I’m getting bored.”

    It’s something I have to make myself aware of every time I start getting into an argument with someone about politics or religion, which is to not only look for the subjective statements in their arguments, but also look for them in mine.

    I think ultimately it comes down to a difference in perspective, and when people don’t know about subjective and objective, they see it as the other person ‘lying’ or ‘trolling,’ and leap to the defence of their point with even more absolutes.

    Also this is the best article ever, and if you don’t follow it up immediately, I’ll die.

    1. It’s certainly something that no one is immune from. In fact, while writing this post, I kept wanting to go back to make sure every statement was prefaced by a ‘I think’, etc, and quickly realised how tiresome that would become, both for myself as writer and for the readers.

      Looking to find perhaps the flaws in our own arguments is a very good idea, as it makes us examine what we believe and gives us a greater understanding of the working of our own minds. Plus, it also helps us realise when we’re being a pretentious ass, which is always a good thing.

      Well, sir, I am taking your comment at face value, so thank you for the compliment, and my sympathies on your impending loss.

  2. First of all I would like to say awesome blog!
    I had a quick question which I’d like to ask if you don’t mind.
    I was interested to know how you center yourself and clear your thoughts before writing.
    I have had trouble clearing my mind in getting
    my ideas out. I truly do take pleasure in writing but it
    just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are lost just trying to figure out how to
    begin. Any recommendations or hints? Appreciate
    it!

    1. Hi Cheri, thanks for stopping by 🙂 I tend not to be writing (fiction that is, I write professionally as a living) unless I’m wanting to write, so I usually know how I want to start, and it;s just like turning on a tap.

      I think every writer has their own process and/or ritual they have to go through every time they want to sit down and write something. If it takes you 10 minutes or so to get started, maybe that’s just what you need to get all the day to day thoughts to one side so you can be creative? As long as you find that the words are coming eventually, that’s just part of your process.

      Thanks for commenting 🙂

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