If critics have become irrelevant, it has little to do with how many people say they pay attention to them or how many movies get press screened before they open. No, I submit it's because so many people don't even know what criticism is. They think it means "saying something bad." Listen to the way they
reason argue with one another. Watch the talking heads on TV. Listen to the little kids on the playground, or the couple in the bar having a marital spat. News reporting or blog commenting. It's all the same. Critical thinking is not a value prized by our culture.
"I criticize something!"
"I disagree! So, I criticize you back! You are a criticizer!"
Never mind specifics, subtleties, reasons -- they're superfluous. All that matters is point-of-view, pro- something or anti- something else. A "debate" is merely a series of unrelated expressions of agreement or disagreement -- usually expressed as disparaging characterizations of the other person. Republicans say this, Democrats say that, nothing else exists outside of their opinions. In this climate, that quotation from Daniel Dennett in the upper right column is indecipherable. See Monty Python's "Argument Clinic" sketch, where argument is hopelessly confused with abuse and contradiction.
So, say whatever you want about "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" or President Obama or Michael Jackson or Bill Maher (to cite a few recent topics hereabouts). What matters is only whether the remarks are critical (in which case you will be characterized as a naysayer) or approving (in which case you will be characterized as praisegiver). In either case, what you actually said will be considered trivial by many, if it is considered (or noticed) at all.
An "I like this for a particular reason" (not necessarily for any other reason) elicits an "I don't like you because you like something I don't like for all kinds of reasons unrelated to anything you actually said." Put another way, the assertion, "I don't like this particular thing because..." will be countered by, "I don't like you because you are the kind of person who likes nothing I like."
Watch for it. There are a million ways to generalize any comment into oblivion, to avoid engaging any actual criticism (and by that I mean an observation based on evidence, whether someone else construes it as positive or negative). Sometimes a plain statement of undeniable fact will be taken as an implicit criticism and will be met with irrational hostility. As in:
1) Statement: "Naziism is a form of fascism."
Response: "You are a left-wing maniac!"
2) Statement: "Murder is a crime."
Response: "You'd like to commit murder, but you don't have the balls!"
3) Statement: "This Gravenstein apple has a worm in it."
Response: "What have you got against Gravensteins? You just want to ruin them for other people! Gravensteins are way better than Granny Smiths! I love Gravensteins! In fact, apples are better than oranges and only a coward would claim otherwise!"
Count the number of irrelevancies in that third response, will you? First there's the outlandish generalization that because of a particular flaw in one Gravenstein, the speaker dislikes all Gravensteins. Then there's the assumption of motive -- that the speaker is trying to make other people dislike Gravensteins, or inhibit their enjoyment of them. Next is the irrelevant comparison. Followed by an unsupported statement of opinion, as if the expression of a contrary preference itself constituted a counter-argument. And finally, a whopping irrelevant comparison with an ad hominem twist!
Even questions can be met with insulting non sequiturs if somebody wants to simply strike back at the questioner:
4) Question: "Have you seen the car keys?"
Response: "God, you're a miserable person. How do you get through the day, blaming everything on everyone else all the time?
Again, the question is met with a judgement about the character of the questioner, based on speculation and meaningless attributions of motive and attitude. (OK, this one's a bit out there -- maybe the questionee detected an accusatory tone of voice from the questioner -- but I exaggerate to make a point.)
Reasoning? Analysis? Argument? Debate? Exchange of ideas? How many of the forms of communication necessary for a conversation are honored in most public or private discourse when the chief goal is just to discredit or dismiss the other party (and not to address the merits of a particular case or observation)? Under these all-too-common circumstances, the ostensible subject of the discussion is completely ignored, because all that matters is portraying the opponent as the loser in a particular exchange.
A friend of mine described arguments in her family that could always be won by her mother with one simple pronouncement. No matter what the subject, mom could always stop things dead with: "Well, you are angry. You are just an angry person." There you go. The unstated implication is that the other person's arguments are rendered moot by an emotion. Never mind the evidence, or the quality of reasoning -- or even that anger may be a reasonable, understandable, appropriate and justifiable reaction under the circumstances. What mom is saying is: "I realize I can't win on the merits, so I won't listen. I'm turning you off, shutting you down." She is not saying, "Your anger is making you incoherent." She is saying: "If you're angry, you lose." (I think Al Franken tried this on Bill O'Reilly once years ago, and the universe almost imploded.)
There's a great moment in Jonathan Demme's "Rachel Getting Married" (screenplay by Jenny Lumet) where two sisters, Rachel and Kym, are going at it -- each trying to portray herself as the superior sufferer and the other as a solipsistic drama queen. Suddenly, Rachel announces that she's pregnant and everybody in the room erupts in celebration. Kym objects: "Wait! Stop! You can't just drop that tectonic bit of information into a completely separate conversation, Rachel. You can't do that! [...]
"Oh, god. Of course I'm happy for you. But you can't tell me when we're talking like this. It's a total set-up!"
I urge you to notice how often situations not unlike this one take place between politicians, pundits, friends, families, couples. Not the playing of the "pregnancy card," but the introduction of a sensational topic that derails any possibility of actual discussion. Like whenever somebody brings up a comparison to Nazis. Rarely does anyone have the presence of mind to, like Kym, call attention to what's just happened. (In Demme's movie, Kym knows she has "lost" and that she's going to look bad, but needs to make the point anyway. Rachel claims exhaustion and gets to make an exit as the victorious martyr.)
Look around, and notice how often these games are habitually put into play, and how little of any substance comes of them. Most people probably don't even realize how little sense they're making, and wouldn't care if it was brought to their attention. Indeed, if you were to do so, they'd attack you mercilessly, tell you you're a poop-head and demand you get off their property, you Nazi!
You'll notice that I have not overtly expressed an opinion about these absurd lapses in logic and civility, only proposed that they reflect the preference for certain competitive cultural values (insult, triumphalism, distraction, opinion) over others (accurate observation, analysis, precision of expression).
But maybe you can tell I intend an implicit criticism. Does it signal the end of human civilization? Probably. But that's just my opinion.
Popular Blog Posts
An interview with Michael Shannon on Freeheld, 99 Homes, Boardwalk Empire, and more.
Our monthly series digs into the career of Wes Craven and comes out with his 3D 2010 film, "My Soul to Take".
A comparison of Frank Costello in The Departed and Whitey Bulger in Black Mass reveals weaknesses in the latter.
A letter to Angelina Jolie about the casting of her upcoming take on "Cleopatra."