Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Fervor of One's Likes

Have you noticed that you can usually forgive someone who likes something that you don't like, but that it is much harder to accept someone's criticism of what you really like?

Throughout the internet, and especially since the advent of blogs, one finds people airing their evaluations, likes, dislikes, opinions on every imaginable ideology, religion, sect, artifact, artist, film, song, piece of music, ban, band, brand, ...

I claim that identification with an object or opinion (whatever it may be), and getting excited about it to the extent of hating anyone who doesn't like it as much as you do, is a pernicious facet of the human condition. It is not very different from killing for one's God or religion, and from wanting to become an evangelist for something that has touched one's core.

Many years back, when I was reading about the Robert Bresson film Au Hasard Balthazar, I came across an extremely weird (to me at that time) comment by a critic (mind you, a critic, not a fan):
Whoever didn't weep at the end of Au Hasard Balthazar should be hit with a Mack truck outside the theater. (Gary Indiana)
Now the irony is, Balthazar is an elegy moaning the lack of regard for one's fellow living beings.

Similar sentiments, less vehemently expressed, can be found in the vast majority of human beings who identify with particular pieces of culture. This identification is extremely strong when the artifact is of one's own creation. I have seen artists hurl ugly invectives at their critics, while discussing a sublime song that they had composed. I have heard of painters and sculptors acting extremely weird when someone dares to point out a flaw in their work.

And since religious feeling is the most personal creation of all, and the relationship with one's deity the most hallowed, criticizing that is considered the ultimate in bad manners.

Since long, I have wondered about a dichotomy: Every religion preaches universal brotherhood, but the followers of that religion are willing to kill those who disagree with their beliefs. But now I understand that the universal brotherhood is a very faint secondary aspect of religion, the primary aspect is that of a personal (psychological) aggrandizement.

It is the inner self which feels attacked when that aggrandizement is vilified. No wonder the critics are seen as forces of evil who must be destroyed to uphold righteousness. This righteousness is nothing but one's own feelings of being good, right, a believer in the truth, etc.

And as I see it, this malady is spread far and wide in humanity, not just amongst the religious fundamentalists. We all identify with certain objects and things and art-instances which make us feel better about ourselves, and anyone who weakens the "purity" of that feeling becomes the object of our dislike or derision. What gets attacked in these milder cases is the pride in, and identification with, one's tastes and choices.

As the communication arena explodes with accessibility, this problem is going to get worse. There are no sacred cows anymore, everything is being criticized by at least some people on the internet. This does introduce a certain dread in a normal human being who dares to type in the name of his favorite film, or of his hallowed saint, in Google's search box. God knows what abominable words, what attacks on his cherished identity might be there in the first few results! I observed long ago, when internet was in its infancy, that the World Wide Web will provide like-minded people with a platform to huddle together and echo each other's prejudices. That it will lead to a narrowing of one's horizon, not a widening of it, because one will have the choice to interact only with those who agree with oneself. Contrast this with a live association, where you cannot politely ignore a contrarian viewpoint. You have to respond to it or risk being called a snob.


I am an avid watcher of films and I like to read about films that I have liked or disliked.

An extremely interesting website for film buffs is the Rotten Tomatoes index of film reviews. It categorizes reviews as favorable and unfavorable. I have noticed how I overlook with disdain the negative reviews for a film I like, and how I appreciatively smile when a reviewer gives 4 stars to a film I have liked.

And it is not something that I am guilty of for being an amateur. One of my favorite critics on the net, a seasoned professional, has this to say on the front page of his website:
Karina Longworth loves both Silent Light and Sleeping Dogs Lie. I may have to swoon.
This facet of liking people who like our choices, and disliking those who don't, is getting accentuated by the plethora of choices that we have in today's world. More and more, our choices are defining us in today's world of wide availability. If someone criticizes our fond choices in today's flood of options, it hurts a lot more than if our choices were restricted.

Barry Schwartz describes it nicely in his book, The Paradox of Choice, when he talks about choosing films to screen for his family and friends:
Choosing a movie for others is not my favorite activity. There is pressure to choose a film that will surprise and delight people. And in my circle, it had become something of a parlor game to make fun of a bad selection and the person responsible for it. On the other hand, the critics back home were only kidding. And more important, even if they were serious, they were fully aware that the options at the local video store were profoundly impoverished. So, back in Swarthmore, nobody had high expectations, and nobody seriously faulted the chooser for whatever he came home with.

Then I moved to the heart of downtown Philadelphia. Three blocks from my house is a video store that has everything. Movies from every era, every genre, every country. So now what's at stake when I go to rent a video for the group? Now whose fault will it be if I bring back something that people regard as a waste of time? Now it is no longer a reflection of the quality of the store. Now it's a reflection of the quality of my taste. So the availability of many attractive options means that there is no longer any excuse for failure. The blame for a bad choie will rest squarely with me, and the stakes involved in my video choice have escalated.

Even decisions as trivial as renting a video become important if we believe that these decisions are revealing something significant about ourselves.
I posit that this pressure is not just due to a belief, but due to an actual fact of identification with our likes and dislikes. And the more obscure our likes, the more vehemence we display in their defense. After all, we can't really blame advertising or peer pressure when we choose something obscure to love.

Now back to where we started: It is easier to accept (rather tolerate) someone liking what you don't like because it doesn't attack your sense of identity directly. You may even silently gloat, and feel superior at the inferior choice of the other person. However, if your choice is directly criticized or shown to be inferior, then the pain is palpable.

And this proclivity to hold one's beliefs and opinions strongly to one's chest is reinforced in no uncertain terms in our culture:
"A man who won't die for something is not fit to live. " (Martin Luther King)

"Those who stand for nothing fall for anything." (Alexander Hamilton)
Opinions and aesthetic choices and responses make for richness in humanity, it is the vehemence and affective reactions to opinions that I question.


Anonymous said...

"A man who won't die for something is not fit to live. " (Martin Luther King)
There is a difference between mere existence and living.Passion is life.Even if it is a passionate search for something worth being passionate enough about as to stake even ones very life.Like the Kinsky character in the Herzog films Fitzcarraido or Cobra Verde,

Di said...

THis is nice underhand way of getting your loyal reader to read your blogs that didn't garner any comments or were not read....LOL....just pulling your leg man...take it easy!

"Now it's a reflection of the quality of my taste."

Well movie dekhnay say pehlay thodi naa malum tha kay movie kaisey then its not reflection of your taste. Maybe reflection on genre you like...possibly...but nothing to do with movie methinks.

Good blog.

Agree with ya on most everything (I have to say this..otherwise you won't like me).