No, no… this post isn’t because I’ve been heavily criticised recently and am about to have a cry. No, not that. The majority of “critique” I attract publicly is beyond inane and isn’t worth bothering with, anyway. This is about reviews and criticism of the subjectivity of art, movies, music, the theatre, painting, and so on. It’s a passionate subject — because for better or worse people’s very identities can be wrapped up in what they do – and don’t – enjoy. And those opinions are useful as they can tell us whether to it’s a worthwhile use of our time experiencing it first hand and coming to our own conclusions and opinions.
In that respect, reviews and critique are more than academic. They’re vital to ensuring we don’t spend 200 hours a day keeping up with the immense pace of art production from around the world for fear of missing out.
But is all that criticism equal?
Almost certainly not. There are bad reasons, or at least excuses and justifications, for reviewing something positively or negatively. Here, though, I want to focus on just negative criticism and opinion. Specifically, why I lend less weight to it when deciding whether to let it influence me.
This is not to say it’s invalid, just that it has to be a good reason before I let a negative review affect me. Besides, I can still be swayed against spending time on something even by a relatively positive review providing it’s an honest one that I can relate to.
Anyway, here are the reasons I don’t lend too much thought to negativity.
Probably around 8 times out of 10, a negative review is an expectation issue. These are complaints along the lines of going into a production of Romeo and Juliet and complaining that it isn’t an action-comedy buddy cop movie. That’s an extreme example, sure, but how many times have you seen a negative review effectively amount to that? Reboots that change too much, or look too different. Comedies that weren’t to someone’s taste in humour – not everything needs to be dry, subtle wit and wordplay, and not everything needs to be Freddy Got Fingered. And sometimes mindless action films do set out to be all about the mindless action. It’s all about target audience, and if you’re intentionally outside that, then is your opinion really worth that much? In no possible universe could you actually feel salience toward art that literally isn’t for you and to your expectations by design.
The reason I admire Roger Ebert’s movie reviews is that this was his approach — he held a movie up to its own purported standard. Did the movie do what it set out to accomplish? If so, then I suppose it’s good by its own standard. If it didn’t accomplish specifically what someone else wanted, it doesn’t automatically mean the opposite.
See, when I watch, listen to or read something I want to see something someone else has made, I want to see their ideas. If I don’t happen to like it and it’s not for me, then meh. It wasn’t for me. I won’t hate something just because it refused to kneel down and cater to my every whim. I do feel the need to be surprised every now and then, and often that means consuming something that may healthily go against my expectations, and challenge me a little.
2. Actual Opinions
In my experience, I rarely see negative views really phrased as opinions. I have a fairly simple view of what counts as an opinion: can you disprove it? If not, it’s an opinion. You can’t disprove “I like mint-chocolate ice cream”, you can’t disprove “I didn’t like The Book of Henry“. You can disprove “I think the world is flat” — even appending “I think that…” doesn’t automatically mean it’s opinion, it just means you might well think something that’s wrong.
If someone likes something, they’ll usually say “I liked it”. If they loved it they’ll preach that out loud with a giddy joyfulness that I feel bad for not holding too. “I love it!”, “I enjoyed it so much!”, “I had so much fun!”, “it made me think a lot!”. People can just just be allowed to like things, you know, right?
But… if someone hates something, they say tend to “it is shit” and “that is bad”. It’s a phrasing that implies strongly that good/bad are properties of the object itself — they’re not, it is what it is, regardless — and not properties of the beholder. To me, that feels as if the opinion is so insecure they have no choice but to recast it as an apparently-objective fact about world instead. That way they can’t be wrong, at all. They’re right, and right objectively. Even though a true opinion is always right practically by definition, that doesn’t matter — it needs to be an objective truth otherwise they might just have a wrong opinion.
I don’t particularly care for that attitude, it implies (and often people will make this insultingly explicit) that people who like something are objectively wrong.
…And coupled with the point below, inherently inferior for it.
3. It’s “smart”
People treat negative opinions as “more intellectual”. I’m pretty sure that’s an established fact in psychology, but I can’t (currently, I might be back later to edit) track the down the source of that.
If you negatively criticise something, you have to do far less work to be seen as intelligent for it. Do you think Harry S. Plinkett would be as popular, and as praised for insightfulness, if he made a 90 minute YouTube show on why Star Wars is great as opposed to why Phantom Menace isn’t? I don’t think so.
You can see it in review videos — “why it fails” videos outnumber the “why it wins” ones by some margin. It’s especially true if it’s something that has been shown to be successful and popular. Any conversation with a metal or alternative music fan about Justin Swift and Taylor Bieber will prove this pretty quick; successful, popular artists are liked by the majority, but the minority are Just Too Smart for that. This is perceived as inherently better, but I think it’s an illusion caused by rebelling against the mainstream. Knowledge and views that a minority possess is rare, and rarity means value. It’s valued more highly, it’s perceived as more intelligent. These people aren’t haters, they’re the enlightened! See that time Corey Taylor said Bieber was actually a decent songwriter, see that time Tool fans did anything, you know.
It’s easier to hate, and people will more-readily bow down to your superior mind for hating something rather than liking it — even though you might not really have the nuanced, thoughtful view that you think you have.
So it takes a lot more work for someone to produce negative criticism that I feel I want to pay attention to and let influence me. I’ll respect Dan Olson shredding Suicide Squad’s editing for 30 minutes because he knows editing and backs it up with examples. But I don’t really care for a 30 second screaming whine about how Star Trek Discovery “isn’t really Star Trek because it just panders to SJWs”.
As I said, I don’t think all negativity is invalid if it’s a true, unfalsifiable opinion, just that I, personally, don’t put as much stock in it unless it’s a damn good rationale where I can see the workings and reasons.
It’s taken a while for me to purge myself of that kind of asinine elitism, thinking that I was better than others for disliking something. But I feel better for it. Understanding a diversity of actual opinion, and appreciating people for it, goes a long way toward spotting when people try to hide foul assertions and nasty, harmful bullshit behind cries of “it’s just an opinion”.
Except for La La Land, because Jesus Fucking Christ how the hell was that the greatest thing ever? I mean, it’s awful. Just the worst. All those people who loved it and rave about it are idi-