I hope she doesn’t mind me doing this, but my niece recently posted this lament on Facebook:
I miss my film class. There I could discuss film, story, or anything else with rational people who can appreciate opinions and be respectful. Lately people don’t understand that I am not trying to start an argument or put down a body of work, I just want to discuss it. People can be very quick to jump to the defensive or aggressively insult something just because they can. Stop putting something down because it is too popular for you or isn’t your personal holy grail of a novel, film/show, or even music genre. It isn’t always about whats the best, sometimes its about what makes an impact. You may not get it, but it could mean everything to the person next to you. Its as if admitting something else is good, diminishes the value of your favorite thing. Come on guys, Lets let go of the crazed fandom long enough to respect others opinions and acknowledge that everything has merit and real people put real work into what we are trashing. Can’t we just have good discussions about what works for us and what doesn’t? Yes we will probably disagree, but that doesn’t mean we can’t talk about it instead of dissolving into five year olds fighting over who has the biggest stick to beat each other over the heads with.
She has my sympathy. It does seem to have become that way. I don’t know if it’s an overdose of professional critics who seem to not be content merely to review a work, but feel they must stake out an extreme stance in order to get noticed, or if it’s something about our culture in general these days that seems to require us all to “go large or go home”.
Why is it we’ve forgotten that “personal opinion” simply means that the opinion is our own, from our own point of view, and not “an opinion to be taken personally”?
That’s likely why my niece’s film class was a good place for that. Not only did a class like that set a certain expectation by being a class in the first place, it also provided the students with a framework and vocabulary for discussing such topics. Without such tools, the average person is left with vague emotional responses, like “That film stank! I hated it!” instead of being able to deconstruct a work and discuss individual elements independent of one’s over-all opinion of the work.
Yet that is also where social media is doing regular, civil discourse no favors. The shorter format and rapid update format of Twitter and Facebook don’t favor lengthy, well-reasoned arguments. They reward quick, pithy, even emotional blurts of criticism designed to get as much a reaction from the word choice as the actual merits of the observation.
In other words, tweeting “Pay It Forward was the most depressing movie I’ve ever seen. The ending blew chunks!” will usually get more of a response (both positive and negative) than a lengthy blog post discussing how the ending, while surprising the audience and avoiding the stereotypical “feel good” solution, threatens to undermine the very theme of the movie in exchange for a quick tug on the heart-strings in order to make the ending seem more “real”, more “true”. (I watched that movie over the weekend, and really disliked the heavy-handed manner in which they forced the movie down a more depressing path that, I feel, contradicted the message and jeopardized the integrity of the movie while gaining so little.)
But the latter way is boring! It’s so much easier to swoop in with a blanket statement that not only establishes your opinion with confidence and strength, but defies anyone to feel otherwise. The implication is that your opinion is insurmountable, and if anyone disagrees they are clearly not intelligent enough to see it the way you do–the matter is closed. No messy or time-wasting arguments, no risk of broadening your mind and learning that others really can see the same things as you in entirely different ways.
It’s unfortunate. Some of the most rewarding conversations in my life have been those where the other person and I come from entirely different viewpoints, but because we were willing to respect the other person’s perspective, we were able not only avoid offending one another, but expand one another’s experience and point of view. In the process our relationship was strengthened as we saw that we were “safe” with that other person, that they were truly interested in what we thought and was not just looking to score a quick take-down.
This, of course, doesn’t apply only to discussion of the arts. Our national political discourse could benefit highly from everyone learning to discuss effectively rather than just unloading on one another with both barrels, then ducking for cover while attempting to reload.
Perhaps I ask for too much, but I’ll certainly never get it if I don’t ask. Can we please relearn how to talk to one another so that we can come together and find common ground instead of looking for ways to beat one another up? The world would be so much better off. At least in my perspective.