What I meant by that.

A few days ago, I posted this, which I admit was rather cryptic:

Hey!  Do you dislike some Thing?  Has someone else expressed an appreciation for that Thing?  Well, by all means – the most appropriate thing is to crap all over that Thing!  Otherwise, how else would anyone know you’re too cool for that Thing!  Now go – be scathing!  Extra points for using a really limited data set to express how little you know about that Thing!

What did I mean by that?  Well, I have been thinking lately about how much harder it can be to enthuse than to sneer.  Sneering somehow has a patina of respectability, whereas enthusiasm is often considered a bit twee.  If you scoff, the implication is your tastes are higher and purer than those who love (or even appreciate) the thing you scoff at.  Conversely, if you enthuse, you are shallow.

It takes a certain amount of bravery, I think, to simply say that you like something.  And the word “simply” is there for a reason.  It takes far less bravery to attempt to defuse the potential scorn of your audience by saying, “Well it’s not highbrow, but…” or “I know you may not like it, but…” or any other apologetic phrases that preemptively excuse your egregious cultural lapse.  

This is not to say that I believe that everyone must appreciate everything.  But how hard is it to say, “Oh – yeah.  I tried that and it wasn’t my thing,” or even, “Well, I heard about it and it didn’t sound interesting to me.”  Instead, all too often I hear people expending huge amounts of energy on vast verbal rampages of withering scorn that not only label the thing they are discussing as utter and complete trash, but state or imply that anyone who does like that thing has the taste and discrimination of a toddler.  It is not enough to dislike it — you must make sure that everyone else either dislikes it too, or is shamed for their preference.

Worse yet, if you intimately know the thing that the speaker is ripping to shreds, you may detect that they are only familiar with a tiny piece of the entire work.  The first chapter of the novel is taken as a stand-in for the whole or the one movie is emblematic of the director’s entire body of work.  It makes sense that the person who didn’t appreciate the work didn’t go on to find out whether or not it grows on them or if their single experience was an anomaly — who hasn’t given up on something they’re not enjoying?  But the assumption that everything that flows from that source must be identical to the part the speaker didn’t like is absurd.

When you agree with someone that the thing they decry is pretty shoddy and the speaker has a certain amount of verbal facility and a cutting sense of humor, these rants can admittedly be entertaining.  But it strikes me as an adolescent kind of entertainment: ripping down rather than building up.  And if those in agreement start piling on, doing their own share of the ripping, then the results can be downright adolescent in their ugliness.

Let me be clear and say also that I am not saying that criticism itself is bad.  I don’t believe that at all.  But the particular type of criticism that doesn’t just say, “I don’t like this,” or “I think this was badly done and here is why,” or “This story has been told before and done much better,” but must go on to ravage the entire landscape and salt the earth by saying something akin to, “This is utter crap and anyone who likes it must be intellectually and culturally deficient,” well, that for me is a bridge too far.  What does the speaker mean to achieve by such a statement?  Will the people who are the objects of his scorn suddenly say, “Oh – you are so right.  I do have terrible taste.  Please take me under your wing and show me the right way to think and feel.”  I’m thinking the answer to that one is no.  So what is left for the speaker?  The satisfaction that no stone was left unturned in the pursuit of expressing their loathing?  

I know I’ve done my share of ripping.  You have to be pretty saintly to be immune to the lure of looking clever and sharp, especially before a certain audience.  But henceforth I’m going to put my energies towards either appreciation or constructive criticism, and I will try to make sure that my expressions steer clear of the sort that either say or imply that I believe that the appreciation of something I dislike represents some sort of moral failing.  The scornful may keep their scorn with my compliments.  I like what I like.  


  1. Kimberly says

    After you published the cryptic bit a few days ago, it rang a chord. At a party a few weeks ago, I was talking with a woman who is a passionate birder. She travels the world with her husband to find new birds to add to their life lists. While she was talking, all I could think about was how clear it was what joy this brought her. Later, it struck me how not that many years ago, I would have been polite to her face, but I would have laughed behind her back.

    I’ve been thinking since then to try to figure out what changed. Maybe an appreciation of how rare happy people seem to be? Maybe being happier myself? I’m not sure. I think you are right to associate it with adolescence, even though there are plenty of adults who do it. I wonder how much comes from a fear that if there is a disagreement , then one party WRONG, and a need to establish that they aren’t the wrong one.

    As I’ve gotten older, I find myself sneering less and taking pleasure in things more (and more unabashedly). I have embraced by geekdom, and it pleases me.

    I found this via Lianne, and I have to say that I find it a valuable resource: The Happiness Project. One of her “happiness myths” is Happy People Are Annoying and Stupid. I find many of the comments interesting. Oddly enough, this week, she featured a biography of a birder, Phoebe Snetsinger, who came up in the aforementioned discussion.

    I was talking about this change with a friend today–she thinks it’s a sign that I’m ready to finish with grad school. :)

  2. I think you are right to associate it with adolescence, even though there are plenty of adults who do it.

    There are plenty of adults who seem trapped in adolescence.

    I keep running across mentions of the Happiness Project – I need to check it out.

  3. Jill, Kimberly, I’m sitting here nodding in recognition. This has been a huge shift in me in the last 3-4 years. I think I talked about it a bit on yogalila, but yes, after examining my own tendencies to assholiness in this fashion and not liking it, I worked on changing (a lot of this due to my coach training and the study of Pos Psych). I can now honestly say I am mostly free of that misguided need for false cleverness and superiority (false because when you are in it, you are really neither) and I actually feel wonderfully full of love for most people. That sounds corny, I know, but I just love people. Their so peopley. :)

  4. I agree, all. And I like this post. :-)

    I think there’s another dynamic acting out as well and that is the ego-serving need to establish how “well informed” your critique is….which as you point out so well often undoes itself. I think its indicative of a certain insecurity that some folks feel the need to establish their intellect at every opportunity.

    I’ve taken to heart that still waters run deep. That books are best judged not by their covers. That less is …often more than enough.

  5. i am guilty as charged. yes it is so easy to spew and spew and spew the negative
    but sometimes is can be sooo much fun! That said i do also call the 1-800 number to tell them how awesome their product is :)

  6. I see what you mean about the ease–or at least the downright “fun-ness” of being shrill, mean, cutting, etc. And this would probably be a better world if we took as much time to frame positive comments as we did negative (and in that spirit, let me compliment you on your writing style and thoughtful commentary).

    Still, as a writer, writing teacher, and general curmudgeon, I have always subscribed to the philosophy: “If you can’t say something nice about someone. . . great!” :-)

  7. Oh, the negative can be VERY entertaining – no doubt about it. And the old saying, “if you can’t say something nice – sit by me,” has a lot of resonance – after all, criticism has its place. I am a big fan of televisionwithoutpity.com, for instance. But I draw the line at the kind of criticism whose goal is the utter annihilation of its object. That shows a complete lack of respect for those who may enjoy or appreciate the thing in question, and that lack of respect is unforgivable.

  8. And thank you for the compliment about my writing. It is very kind of you.