A Probably-Popular Opinion on Unpopular Opinions

I read a piece on xoJane today that I felt compelled to share on Facebook:

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After my friends fisked this silliness capably, the conversation moved on to the concept of an “unpopular opinion.” My friend Sam said, “I would love it if we as a society could stop framing things as ‘unpopular opinions.’ It’s almost never accurate – for example, I can tell there are TONS of people who don’t care about students in debt because, y’know, we haven’t fixed student debt yet. Something like ‘controversial opinion’ would be more on-point and less reflexively defensive.” He later added, “Reverse-appeal-to democracy is an quick and dirty way to make yourself look like an edgy truth-teller.”

This made me really think about the “unpopular opinion” thing seriously. I think there are a number of things going on when someone refers to an opinion they’re about to share as “unpopular.”

First of all, though, as Sam said, this opinion is not unpopular in our country. Here’s the main idea, from the article:

I can’t pretend I completely understand how these people feel after the fun is over and the repayments begin, but I can say that I really don’t feel bad for them.

Why not? Because I worked hard to avoid taking out loans. My wonderful parents and grandmother helped me pay for my education, but in the end, it was a few decisions I made that saved me the burden of borrowing money I would never have been able to pay back. Unlike the majority of my friends who went to schools less than an hour from their parents’ homes and chose to live on campus rather than commute, my college roommates were named Mom and Dad. I chose state schools that were half, sometimes one-quarter, of the cost of the schools my friends were attending and worked a part-time on-campus scholarship job in addition to full-time hours at my retail job. I spent the four years of my life designed for partying essentially reliving my high school years. And yes, it was awful.

Is this an unpopular thing to say? Here are some very similar sentiments:

In America this idea of competition – it works! …don’t just go to the [college] that has the highest price, go to one that has a little lower price where you can get a good education and hopefully you’ll find that and don’t take on too much debt and don’t expect the government to forgive the debt that you take on. I know it would be popular for me to stand up and say I’m going to give you government money to make sure to pay for your college but I’m not going to promise that.

Or:

Take a shot, go for it, take a risk, get the education, borrow money if you have to from your parents, start a business.

Believing that people should not attend anything but the cheapest college in the cheapest way, and that they have only themselves to blame if they’re stuck in debt, is a belief that you can openly profess and come within four percentage points of being the President of the United States. 60,771,703 people voted for Mitt Romney in the last presidential election. Does that look like “unpopular” to you?

And sure, maybe not all of them were aware of his views on rising tuition and student loans, or maybe they disagreed with him on that but voted for him for other reasons. Maybe some of those voters did think that Romney is ridiculously out of touch for assuming that everyone has parents who are able and willing to help them out financially. In any case, “unpopular” conjures up images of someone sitting alone at a lunch table or getting picked last for the kickball team–images that, I will argue, it might be the writer’s intent to conjure up. Many, many people picked Mitt Romney for their team.

So, when people call something an “unpopular opinion,” what do they mean?

Sometimes they seem to mean that it’s a controversial opinion, which isn’t the same as an unpopular one. If people are split 50-50 on a given issue, that’s a controversy. But you can’t really call either side an “unpopular” opinion if half the group agrees with you. I’d say that 40-60 and 30-70 splits are also pretty controversial, because even in a relatively small group of random people, you’re very likely to encounter dissent no matter which side you’re on.

Of course, because our social groups tend to be so homogenous in all sorts of ways, we aren’t actually all that likely to encounter strong dissent on political topics, even ones where the overall split is about 50-50. For instance, I don’t think I’m actually friends with anyone who thinks that same-sex marriage or abortion should be illegal–at least not close enough friends to be aware of this political difference. (And, by the way, I’m absolutely fine with it staying that way.) Yet same-sex marriage and abortion are controversial issues today, even though they’re steadily becoming less so.

But even within a relatively politically homogenous social group, there will be strong disagreements–and therefore controversies. In a feminist group, a critical take on Emma Watson’s recent U.N. speech might be very controversial. In an atheist group, a critical take on Richard Dawkins’ opinions on gender might be very controversial. That doesn’t necessarily mean that anyone on any side of these issues is presenting an opinion that’s “unpopular.”

Which brings me to my next point. Sometimes, when people declare their opinion “unpopular,” sometimes they mean, “unpopular with my target audience/social circle/a group of people whose approval I care about.”

Of course, social (dis)approval is a pretty powerful force. Even people with tons and tons of privilege may feel very hurt by social disapproval, which is perhaps why some people claim that perceived “attacks” on men or white people or what have you are “just as bad” as sexism, racism, et cetera.

Even then, though, perceptions aren’t always reality. We’ve probably all seen articles like, “UNPOPULAR OPINION: I am a strong feminist woman who still wants to marry a man and have babies.” While some people may disagree with this, to whatever extent you can “disagree” with someone’s desires and self-identification, this is not even remotely unpopular among most feminists.

Other times, it might be the case that a particular opinion that someone has places them in an extreme minority in their social group. In that case, declaring the opinion “unpopular” before it’s even stated might serve several functions:

  1. Deflecting expectations to defend the opinion. “Well, it’s unpopular, so I guess you’re just going to disagree with it.”
  2. Giving the audience a “spoiler” so that they aren’t as shocked by the presumed unorthodoxy of the opinion.
  3. Cultivating sympathy for the speaker’s presumed alienation or isolation due to their minority opinion.
  4. Showing the audience that the speaker is aware of the opinion’s unpopularity, making disagreement almost unnecessary.
  5. Inspiring respect for the speaker for their presumed bravery in stating such an opinion.

A confession: I used to sometimes label things as “unpopular opinions,” and there’s still a category on this blog for that reason. I did this for a mix of reasons, chief among them the fact that I was deeply insecure about my opinions–not in the sense that I wasn’t confident in them, but that I felt like I would never be accepted by people because of them. I think that was sometimes a little accurate–I really did get a lot of shit in college from people who disagreed with my writing, and I really do get harassed online sometimes for it. I did lose friends. I did fear people finding it and reading it and deciding that I’m a horrible, mean person because of it, because sometimes that actually happened. But mostly, it was a matter of me needing to come into my own a little bit and meet people who affirmed my thoughts and opinions–even if they don’t always agree!

I don’t think that calling opinions “unpopular” really helped me lessen their potential negative impact, though. Most people see through this gambit even if they can’t necessarily articulate why. Defensiveness, especially preemptive defensiveness, is probably never a good look. And personally, I have heard “This is an unpopular opinion, but” followed with meanness and ignorance so many times that hearing it now biases me against the forthcoming opinion by default. I’d imagine many people feel the same way.

Even if you don’t have that sort of association with it, though, calling an opinion “unpopular” probably predisposes the listener to disagree with it. Why would you want to do that? Unless you are, for instance, just trolling and wasting everyone’s time?

In the case of this particular xoJane piece, Slizewski does not specify who her opinion might be unpopular with, or why. I’m not sure if she thinks she’s speaking to her presumably irresponsible friends (one of whom is referenced, extremely flippantly, at the beginning of the piece), or to xoJane’s presumably progressive readership, or to high school seniors currently applying to college. The way Slizewski imagines “the stereotypical college experience” may be instructive:

Imagine the stereotypical American college experience. You pick some private university in the middle of a cornfield with a tuition price of about $36,000 a year, plus room and board, party it up every night since you’ve finally escaped the teenage hellhole known as your family’s home, and stumble into your Symbolism in Harry Potter seminar at 11 a.m. still half-drunk and probably reeking of Icehouse. You join a sorority, get vomit in your hair more times than you’re willing to admit publicly, and spend half the day on whatever flavor-of-the-week social media site the guy you currently like is active on.

This doesn’t sound like the college experience of me or any of my friends who went to private universities, but the hypothetical person who seeks this sort of experience is, presumably, the sort of person with whom Slizewski’s opinion would be “unpopular.”

But because she doesn’t specify, it comes across like she thinks the opinion is just, well, globally unpopular. It’s not. As I noted, you can come very close to becoming the President while expressing this opinion. If that’s not a popularity contest, I don’t know what is.

What are some truly unpopular opinions in this country? That women literally shouldn’t even have the right to vote. That the military and the police are inherently oppressive, corrupt, violent institutions that should be disbanded immediately. That roads should be privately funded. That men are all individually evil. That atheism should be criminalized.

Certainly there are people, even plenty of people, in this country who believe these things, but those people are probably a very small minority. And notice the dearth of articles titled “UNPOPULAR OPINION: The 19th Amendment Should Be Repealed.”

Most of the time, I think, “unpopular opinion” is really just code for, “an opinion that will hurt people.” Calling it “unpopular” rather than “hurtful” is quite a convenient way to take the responsibility for causing hurt off of yourself.

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A Probably-Popular Opinion on Unpopular Opinions
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8 thoughts on “A Probably-Popular Opinion on Unpopular Opinions

  1. 1

    I’m not sure I’ve ever explicitly labeled things I say as unpopular opinions, but I’ve frequently framed things I say as being contrarian. But it’s more with the intention of expression, than persuasion. I’m expressing a real sense that my opinion is in fact contrarian (relative to whoever I believe is reading), but I don’t expect people to assign it any more weight because of that.

    On further thought, I frame my opinions as contrarian because I hope it will make people pay more attention. If you want to hear multiple viewpoints, you have to listen to the unpopular opinions, even if you don’t agree with them.

    In any case, it does seem like a bit of a style error, like the way that I add too many “I think”s in my writing, unless I make a conscious effort to avoid it. From a writer’s point of view, I want to make sure people see how uncertain I am. But from a reader’s point of view, I already know that everything a writer writes is just what they think. From a writer’s point of view, you want to make sure people know how contrarian you’re feeling, but from a reader’s point of view, it’s not really relevant information.

  2. 2

    A confession: I used to sometimes label things as “unpopular opinions […] I did this for a mix of reasons, chief among them the fact that I was deeply insecure about my opinions–not in the sense that I wasn’t confident in them, but that I felt like I would never be accepted by people because of them.

    I don’t use this particular phrase very often but sometimes – yes, sometimes I was saying similar things to the same effect. My motivations were also very similar to the ones you describe: most of this was about the initial insecurity and the expectancy of rejection. Ok, part of it was also a desire to introduce myself properly (“no, I’m not on your map”), which in general is not such a bad idea; however, there is no denying that mixing it with defensiveness sounds just awkward.

    I don’t think that calling opinions “unpopular” really helped me lessen their potential negative impact, though.

    I would have to think really hard to find even a single example of a situation where it made a difference for me. The real difference – if any – comes somewhere in the middle of the conversation and it has little to do with the “unpopularity” preamble.

    Thanks for this OP. It’s like a moment of rest.

  3. 4

    The funny thing is, people often reverse the error, too–someone about to spew something genuinely repulsive to ninety-five percent of the human race will often preface it with, “Now, I understand this might be controversial, but…” No, dude, there’s no controversy here. Controversy requires two or more groups of people, of at least sufficiently large proportion to the whole, that actually care about the issue and hold strongly differing sides. Your asshat theory about how the Holocaust was just a false-flag operation by the Elders of Zion really is ‘unpopular’. The only ‘controversy’ involved is in just what steps are justified in limiting your ability to spew such nonsense.

    They claim ‘unpopular’ when they want to fake bravery; they claim ‘controversy’ when they want to fake support.

  4. 5

    This reminds me of something that Bertrand Russell had written in An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish:

    But if conformity has its dangers, so has nonconformity.

    Some “advanced thinkers” are of the opinion that any one who differs from the conventional opinion must be in the right. This is a delusion; if it were not, truth would be easier to come by than it is. There are infinite possibilities of error, and more cranks take up unfashionable errors than unfashionable truths.

    Turning to Jessica Slizewski’s piece, I can see lots of problems with it. Are there enough cheap colleges in easy commuting distance for everybody? Will many employers take seriously degrees from such colleges? One can also turn this “unpopular viewpoint” stance against JS. Would she appreciate someone claiming that women are to be the property of their male relatives with no independent legal existence? That women should not be educated, and should not even learn how to read and write? Etc.

  5. 6

    Lately, I find myself reacting to the “unpopular opinion” disclaimer in the same way I would to the ” I’m not a (whatever flavor of bigotry they are about to unleash), BUT,” preface.

  6. 7

    Most of the time, I think, “unpopular opinion” is really just code for, “an opinion that will hurt people.”

    My money is on self aggrandizement: “This opinion is really unpopular with those morons.”

    An amusing phenomenon are things like the “unpopular opinion puffin” meme, where people post their supposedly unpopular opinions on the image of a puffin. Most meme sites that I visit use an up vote system to determine what gets posted on the front page. Only the popular opinions, of course, get up-voted. This leads to parade of “unpopular opinions” that are actually very popular, and usually just part of the status quo.

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