Unpopular opinions! Why do you think what you think

Last week I received an email from Amazon telling me about all the things they wanted me to buy. What struck me about this email however, was that whatever the product, the only accolade anything was given, from books, to music, to clothes, to cinema tickets to the latest Netflix series, was that it was “popular!”.

According to Amazon, the chief reason I should be interested in reading or seeing or wearing or otherwise consuming their consumables, was because a lot of other people had. Of course, it’s obvious why Amazon would consider “popularity” to be a good thing, since from their perspective, when something is “popular”, it means they’ve sold many copies and made more money off it. However, for Amazon to then tell the rest of us that because a thing is “popular,” i.e. commercially successful, we the customers should automatically consider it good for us too is a form of groupthink Orwell would be proud of, an assimilation by the capitalist collective: “We are the Corp. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Your culture will adapt to service us. Resistance is futile.”

In order to be more than drones converting product into prophet for the collective, we obviously need to try to decide for ourselves irrespective of a thing’s popularity or corporate advertising, if something, be it a book, film, computer game or socket wrench, is indeed a good or a bad thing. The problem however, is that despite everyone now having an ability to discuss and debate and engage in dialogue greater than at any time in the history of the world, real, rational conversations about the goodness or badness of any given thing don’t happen all that often.

After I finish reading a book and before I write a review, I have a poke around the interweb to see what others have said about it. Unfortunately, for every review that talks in detail about why the reviewer liked or did not like the book, considers matters carefully and gives an intelligible opinion, there are ten more which say vaguely positive things like “you should read this book because it is good!”. As well as innumerable faceless likes or thumbs ups; not to mention a far smaller amount of equally unspecific (and occasionally profane), negative comments or thumbs downs.

A basic tenet of internet culture, and one which certain people will defend quite vigorously, is that everyone is entitled to their opinion. What I find myself wondering though, is what exactly are these “opinions”, which everyone is apparently entitled to really based on,” since there is a huge difference in basing an opinion on taste, and basing an opinion on judgement.

If you ask someone what their favourite colour is, you will get a one word answer. There is not usually any point debating the merits of green as a favourite colour over purple, or yellow over orange, since there is nothing (at least from a sensory perspective), that green and orange have which yellow or purple do not. Of course, there are personal reasons why a person might prefer green as a favourite colour, I for example as a child always loved the colour green since it was the colour of Percy the cheeky green tank engine in the Thomas stories, however only a child would try to say that one was simply “better” than another.

Contrast this to, say, a debate about a particular strategy in chess. You can say that when white moved their bishop out too early they opened the board, but invited attack, whilst castling on the king’s side for black was a bad move since they allowed white to gain momentum even if they put their king in a more defensible position.

There are in short, definite characteristics which a person can analyse in detail about a chess strategy, even whilst maintaining different opinions about that strategy, after all whilst the ultimate aim in chess is to win, there are almost an infinite number of ways to do that. Indeed, the better someone is at chess, the better their analyses, and the more detailed their opinion will be.

This is the difference between “taste,” and “judgement,” and one of the central debates in aesthetics; the philosophy of art and beauty. Are artistic judgements a matter of simple personal opinion with nothing to back them up but individual history (like my childhood appreciation for the colour green), or based upon some more tangible characteristics.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with having opinions based on taste, we all have favourite colours, favourite scents or favourite shapes which we like for reasons best known to ourselves. The problem comes however when we try to have a conversation about those tastes.

One person says “I like something”.

The next says “I don’t”.

If here the term “like”, is simply a matter of taste, an arbitrary assignment of value no different to a child’s favourite colour, then effectively the conversation has just stopped, “I like this”, “well I like that,” end of story.

If however, there is no more reason a person can give for why they like what they do, then the only measure we’re left with is popularity, the gross numeric value of how many people like something. It’s not too far a step, especially in this age of high commercialism and centralised production, for companies to simply remove the “less popular” alternatives, or just use aggressive advertising to convince people (as Amazon attempted with me), that what a company is offering is ultimately what people want simply because they want people to want it, and thus we’re right back with father Ford, old George’s sinister big brother.

On the other hand, if we can say “why” we like what we do in an intelligible way, if we can point to the features of a given thing and explain them to others, just as chess players do when debating strategy, we have something extremely valuable: a common language.

If, when we say we like something, we can point out specific attributes of the thing we like, such as “momentum” or “defence” in a chess strategy, we are doing more than just expressing taste. We are saying not only that the thing we like has such and such a set of characteristics, we are also asserting that those characteristics are the reason why we like that thing, and that if those characteristics were present in other instances of that thing, we, and likely others who like the same characteristics as we do, would like those other instances of that thing as well.

To put it a bit less theoretically, if I say I like The Lord of the Rings because it has a beautiful writing style, I have made an evaluative judgement. I have defined a feature of what to me is a good book, i.e. a beautiful writing style, and attributed it to Lord of the Rings.

I have also here directly opened myself to potential disagreement. People may disagree with me on the quality of Tolkien’s writing, or might cite other characteristics of Lord of the Rings which make it for them, a disliked book, e.g. the slowness of its pacing.

Here however, we have opened a conversation, a conversation about The Lord of the Rings in particular, and about the nature of good books in general. While we might hold opposing views, we are expressing those opinions with reference to characteristics which we can both understand.

Of course, we might completely disagree on the value or status of these characteristics, e.g. someone might think a fast pace and quick action are far more important than writing beautifully, we might even disagree on the nature of what constitutes “a beautiful writing style”, and whether it is therefore present in Lord of the Rings. We are however, still able to at least potentially, communicate with each other.

Not only does defining mutually understandable characteristics free us from the tyranny of simply “what sells”, but it also lets us share something as individuals, give us a common interest and a way of relating to each other, transforming the comparatively solo activity of reading, into something social.

I met the wonderful lady I’m married to on a mailing list where I shared my reviews, and we started chatting because we were comparing notes on specific books, making recommendations, and discussing speculative fiction in general. We spend a significant amount of our time talking about books, and reading them together (she also corrects all my articles and reviews, and we disagree relatively often, especially about George R. R. Martin). Had I simply left things at the level of “I like this”, “I like that” we probably would both still be single.

Of course, as with most things to do with human motivations, “taste” and “judgement”, are not necessarily two distinct things with rigid boundaries. However, in teasing out why we ourselves like a given book, and which part of our liking relates to characteristics which we can communicate to others, and which part might just be a consequence of our own history, we can also learn something of ourselves as well.

In Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive, I was shocked how much Kaladin’s constant fits of depression and self-obsession annoyed me, how he remained absolutely convinced the upper class Light eyes were all against him, and how he persisted in feeling that way no matter what evidence was presented to the contrary. It wasn’t exactly a leap of logic to realise that the reason Kaladin annoyed me so much, is that he very much reminds me of me.

I am of course assuming here, that our ability to disagree and compare opinions can be done peacefully, which I freely admit might seem like something of a tall order these days. One of the oft quoted motivations of those who brandish the “everyone is entitled to their opinion” club, is to avoid any sort of strife caused by disagreement, much less the kind of aggressively toxic factionalism which has become worryingly common at the moment, both on and off line.

Yet, just because someone cites a negative characteristic of something, that doesn’t make them a so-called “hater” any more than nothing but effusive praise makes someone a “real fan”. After all, nothing (except Mary Poppins), is “practically perfect in every way” or indeed the opposite. So, engaging in any sort of hyperbolic “best thing ever!”, “worst thing ever!”, type of distinction, for all it happens worryingly often, is not ultimately going to help discussion all that much.

To me, muzzling all discussion in the false attempt to promote harmony just seems to play into the hands of those who simply want there to be one opinion, and ultimately undermines the very landscape of opinions and individuality the “everyone’s entitled” sentiment seeks to promote. After all, having someone rationally, logically and calmly disagree with your opinion is much more likely to teach you something about your own views, rather than just dismissing what the other person says as “only their opinion”. I’ve also occasionally seen the “that’s just your opinion!” dismissal of a certain view actively used as a justification for those on one side to not listen to the other side, and thus increase, rather than decrease the zealous entrenchment of one given perspective, and ultimately the bad feeling between both sides.

Those reviewers I myself read on a regular basis are not the ones I agree with all of the time, but the ones who can make a good argument for the opinions they hold, cite logical characteristics of the thing they’re arguing about, and perhaps show me something in the process.

This is in fact, one of the reasons I write reviews myself, because in writing reviews, I can more formally set out, why I liked what I liked, why I disliked what I disliked, and which of these judgements relate to just how I feel, and which might be merits or flaws on in the author’s actual technique. Of course, I hope that as someone who has read a great deal and thought deeply about what I’ve read, I can provide analyses which are somewhat useful to others, complete with reasonable justifications for why I think what I do, but there are definitely people who have different opinions and analyse matters otherwise, and I’m always happy to listen to well-argued alternative perspectives, even if I don’t necessarily agree with them.

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle believed that everything had its definitive virtues; humans very much included. He thought there was an absolute set of characteristics which the well learned person could point to and say with unquestioned authority, “this is a good thing!” The only way (Aristotle believed) someone could learn what these characteristics were, was simply by practice, learning and hard thought.

Do I believe that there is a single absolute set of characteristics which always make a good book? Or even a good book of a given genre, probably not. But I do believe, that the fact that we, as critical, thinking beings can make judgements, and share the reasons we make those judgements in an understandable way, might suggest that there is something out there to be found or built, or shared, something a little more solid than everyone’s “taste”.

The one thing I know myself, is that the way to become a better writer, reader and reviewer, is simply to go on thinking, debating and listening, to ourselves and to others, since if we don’t decide for ourselves what to think and why we think it, someone else is going to do it for us.

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