These days, it feels like we exist in a paradox, in which every day we’re bombarded with more criticism than your typical 16th-century peasant would’ve received in three lifetimes. And yet rarely does that criticism take the forms that we’ve been trained to recognize: “I did/didn’t like this because it made me feel X.” It’s almost never that. So much feedback, and yet: it’s rarely a grievance; almost always a thesis.
When someone annoys us online, we feel compelled to ascribe a moral dimension to their obnoxiousness. The bean dad (remember him? sorry for reminding you) can’t just be an obnoxious guy, we have to inflate his behavior into a moral sin (neglect, child abuse, etc). That allows us to pathologize basic obnoxiousness so that it becomes not just a matter of personal taste, but a societal ill to be called out. It is not simply our preference to dislike a guy. It is our moral duty, to raise awareness about Why What He’s Doing Is Actually Toxic, OKAY? (One of the basic tenets of modern discourse is that awareness of a bad thing will automatically rectify it — through awareness magic, I suppose).
It’s important not to let personal biases blind you to the good things in life, but at some point we, and specifically I mean Americans here, seem to have turned this into a crusade to obliterate all subjectivity. We have facts and fake news, moral rights and moral wrongs, focus groups, and “many people are saying,” and yet it’s become almost taboo to enjoy or dislike something “just because.”
I say: it’s time to embrace your inner caprice. Having your own distinct preferences is one of the bedrock pleasures of being human.
I suspect part of our inability to apply this kind of personal reaction is a response to feelings of collective powerlessness and precarity. It’s the internet that gives us access to all this feedback in the first place, but even the internet, which once promised to circumvent sluggish institutions and empower the individual (it’s almost hard to remember now, but it really did) has basically crystallized into a set of sluggish institutions all its own. There’s a widespread feeling that we don’t have much real say in the direction of society beyond our own consumer choices. Acting in kind, political parties have come to resemble competing lifestyle brands. Increasingly it feels like “taste” is the only thing we have left.
Our response to that trend has been to try to leverage that asset into something more. Where taste becomes not just taste but moral action — a society-shaping force. But not only is taste not that, in trying to turn it into something more, we lose precisely what makes it fun in the first place: the privilege of not having to be an example to anyone and answering only to yourself. There’s a powerful truth to “I like this,” one that refuses to presume.
Turning every personal reaction into a public service announcement naturally assuages the guilt we feel for “being negative” (a feeling I suspect Americans are trained to avoid more than other cultures), but it does so at the expense of turning us presumptuous and self-righteous (as some foreign visitors among us have already written about eloquently). Nothing is mere preference; everything is a lesson and a teachable moment. It’s the perfect coping strategy because it appeals to our basic narcissism. What if you were the main character of reality?!
Back in the olden days, well-meaning editors tried to steer critics like me away from using the first-person construction in reviews. The “I” is implied, they’d say. It’s needlessly self-aggrandizing, went the thinking, elevating the reviewer over the work. But paradoxically, it’s precisely the “I” that refuses to presume. “I” acknowledges forces greater than the self. “I think X. YOU can do whatever you want.”
It seems like we’ve all been training for years to avoid those kinds of first-person constructions at all costs. It’s been 10 years now since Kevin Smith pitched his “anti-movie review show” on Hulu, which he described in promos by saying “We don’t review movies, we revere movies.” “We don’t really review it,” he said, “we savor it, imbibe it, like a liqueur, if you will.”
Why are we so goddamned scared of having opinions? If the act has only gotten cornier since then, the sentiment remains largely the same. As Dwayne The Rock Johnson recently said while promoting Black Adam, “The fans will always guide you to where you need to go.”
Insofar as “the fans” are anything more than an amorphous mass of consumers you point to whenever you need a scapegoat, I submit that “the fans” will absolutely not guide you anywhere good. The only thing more imperfect than your own applied personal taste is someone else trying to apply it on your behalf. What’s the success rate on clothes someone bought you because they thought “it looked like your style?”
This “fans are the answer” stuff is the kind of thing executives used to say, pointing to quadrants, tentpoles, built-in fanbases, existing IP, etc. — all fancy ways of saying “I have proof someone out there likes this, which is more important than me saying I like it because it’s good.”
It made some sense for them (even if it was inherently cowardly) because they were in positions where admitting personal preference was dangerous. “Following the numbers” is just doing the job. Putting your name on something because you like it is to potentially admit fallibility. To acknowledge that someone else might’ve done it differently when it goes wrong. Now that the job insecurity of a nineties media exec has trickled down to the masses, maybe it was inevitable that the same kind of corporate speak would trickle down with it.
There’s a parallel even on the criticism side, where even criticism itself has become depersonalized. Criticism on the grounds that something sucks or it’s boring or preachy or just lame rarely penetrates the zeitgeist anymore. The stuff that sticks or gets airtime is always that a show is “normalizing rape” (Game Of Thrones) or “it’s colorist” (In The Heights), or “it’s whitewashing,” or “it’s woke-washing” (the reverse of whitewashing). These kinds of criticisms are catchier because they take the criticism out of the realm of personal opinion and again, inflate it into a societal ill. It’s basically impossible for any artist of a certain scale not to be accused of being too woke or not woke enough, because their original sin is having a specific perspective, without which any decent art is basically impossible. Taking the “I” out of criticism effectively demands that art appeal to everyone all of the time.
It’s all very depressing to see every American start talking like fantasy movie execs, fantasy heads of PR, and fantasy sports team owners — to see sports coverage devolve into a nightmarish sabermetric alphabet soup. The power of anything, as the famous Ratatouille clip below reveals, is in how it makes us feel on a personal level.
The upside is that we don’t have to do this. You can embrace your caprice. You can like what you like and be annoyed by who annoys you, for the pettiest of reasons. Oh, that guy builds free houses for orphans and volunteers every weekend at the legless cat shelter? Good for him, I don’t like the way he stands.
Your petty affinities and annoyances aren’t going to change the world, but they never were. They were supposed to be fun. Or interesting. The least they could do is not make you sad.
It’s fairly common knowledge that professional tasters and master sommeliers can taste and identify flavor compounds that food scientists have yet to isolate. I tend to think taste in all things is like this. Just because you can’t point to it in the company handbook doesn’t mean it’s not there. Maybe it’s magic. Maybe science just hasn’t figured out an explanation for it yet. Either way, your subconscious mind is doing some work your conscious mind can barely fathom, and maybe that’s something to be celebrated rather than denied. Don’t deny it, don’t justify it, just let it be.
Become opinionated. Become ungovernable. Become free.