Friday, 10 March 2017

Objectivity and elitism

Having written film criticism for some 20 years I can remember many conversations over the years with people about just that, film criticism. Often with guys persistently arguing that “the critics” are just elitist snobs who have no idea what real people like. Sometimes I try to counter these thoughts by using simple facts and statistics only to be met by angry outbursts about it being arrogant of me to use my knowledge against them. Sometimes they talk as if they believed that stopping a random person on the street and ask which film to watch is better than listen to a film critic.

I often think of these discussions because such views have, coming both from a right angle and a left angle, become fairly mainstream, and not just about film criticism. Such views are also common among Brexit and Trump supporters, and other similar people, parties and movements around Europe and the US. I felt then, as I feel now, that these unsettling positions and outbursts, the apparent belief that actually knowing something about whatever it is you speak is a flaw, proof of elitism and arrogance, come from a sense of low self-esteem and also, to some extent, from an awareness of them being wrong but rather than accepting that, lashing out at the person who they know is right. (What I am talking about is not differences of opinions but first the anti-fact attitude and then the habit of, instead of engaging in conversation or arguing for a position, just lash out and attack.)

To be called elitist these days does not take much effort. You only have to have an opinion which is either different from somebody else's, or to think for yourself and not accept whatever corporations proclaim. Even to assign value to things often infuriate people. Disliking The Avengers is considered elitist. If, for example, you complain about wrong aspect ratios on Netflix there will always be people who scream "Elitist!" even though it does not make any sense. If a big corporation is showing a film in such a way that part of the image is hidden, or the image is distorted, and you are elitist if you point this out, the only logical interpretation is that the people who scream elitist believe that the corporations are always right and we should unquestioningly accept whatever it is they provide, no matter in what way they provide it. It is in the same manner that Trump or Brexit supporters are saying that people should just shut up and accept whatever is happening. Aspect ratios are not as politically calamitous of course but everything that happens in a society, whether a local or global one, matters, and feed into everything else that happens. Screaming "elitist" is usually a sign of weakness, not awareness.

In the 1970s and 1980s academia was full of people who claimed that there was no such thing as knowledge or objective facts, and there are many who still claim to believe this. Such articles are still published, and such conference papers are presented. I have also met people under more informal circumstances making that same argument, that truth is a fantasy, or an elitist idea, and that all we have are subjective interpretations, even of such things as history. What is striking though is how rare it is for them to accept the consequences of their arguments, or to even actually be able to defend what they proclaim to believe. A Foucault-quoting scholar once tried to explain to me his position that there are no facts or truths by pointing to a candle and saying that if we were to describe it later we would not describe it the same way. I said that we would probably not but was it not an objective fact that there indeed was a candle on the table? And was not its molecular structure independent of our presence? He said that he had perhaps chosen a bad example. I did not point out that according to his line of thinking there could be no such thing as a bad example, as all arguments were supposedly equally valid. Instead I suggested he give another example. He took the American Civil War. Well, I said, was that not a conflict between one side led by Abraham Lincoln and another side led by Robert Lee.* He said that yes, this was true, and maybe this too was a bad example. Then he left. At least, unlike the Trump administration, he had some shame.

Henry Fonda in Young Mr. Lincoln (John Ford 1939)

Arguing that there are no facts or objective truths used to be a very fashionable thing among left-wing intellectuals, and now it has been appropriated by malignant right-wingers. But the problem with such positions was obvious long before Trump. It is also ideas like this that has turned schools in some places (not least in Sweden) into places were teachers are not supposed to teach but let the pupils teach themselves, and the important thing for a school is supposedly to make children creative and engage in critical thinking or some such. I have even heard people argue that teachers should not know more about the subject than the students because this would make them more equal. The ridiculous stupidity of such a position should be self-evident. What is even the purpose of teaching or schools if there is no actual teaching or transfer of knowledge? Behind this, again, lies the contempt for "elitism," against facts and figures, and instead an elevation of subjective feelings above all else. A student might take the lesson to heart and go looking for her own facts and by using her critical thinking decide that the Sandy Hook massacre was fake and 9/11 was an inside job, if it did indeed even happen. This is not how society prosper or move forward.

Those are extreme examples but another contemporary problem that is also about subjective feelings at the expense of facts and knowledge is the disappearance of nuance and complexity, in the public debate at large. If we keep to film, just look at the endless parade of think-pieces and hot takes in which a person has seen a film (or sometimes just the trailer) and then proclaim that there is only one way to understand that film, their way, and if that understanding is that this film is, say, terribly racist then anybody who disagrees is brandishing her privilege and is most likely racist too, or at least not woke enough. Many of these pieces are so bad that they become indistinguishable from parodies, for example since they are frequently so hyperbolic ("This is the most misogynistic film ever made!"), and so desperately lacking in historical context ("This is the first time ever that women have been allowed to be funny!").

The idea that such a complex object as a film or novel can only be understood or interpreted in one singular way, and anybody who sees it differently is a suspect character, is clearly wrong. Is the work racist, or is it about racist characters? Is it sincere or ironic? What was the context in which it was produced? Is it a well-meaning but perhaps failed work, or is it from beginning deliberately racist? These are some of the questions you need to wrestle with. Analysing films and books, art in general, is hard work unless you are arrogant. It takes time and knowledge to be attuned to all the nuances in a given work, and often you need to watch a film several times to understand it. But for many that is an elitist position; if a person feel something that is the end of it. Another reason has to do with economics; in this age of temp jobs and freelancing you might have to quickly write stupid columns or else you will starve. It is a Faustian bargain.

The position that there is only one correct interpretation is of course different from the "there is no truth, all is relative"-position. It is however related to Barthes's idea of the death of the author. According to him any meaning a text, such as a book, might have comes from the interpretation of the reader/viewer, and has nothing to do with any authorial intent, which does not exist. That too is a dubious position but the difference is that for Barthes any interpretation is potentially equally valid whereas the position in all of these pieces in assorted journals and websites is that there can be only one true interpretation. But there is no shortage of takes, or "correct" interpretations, however wildly inconsistent, as any given film is usually found to be problematic by someone. After all, Moonlight did not pass the Bechdel test.

The political climate in the world is increasingly fragile, and one might be forgiven for feeling that everything is getting worse by the hour. The constant updates, live feeds, the need to be first, to create new content, to keep one's brand sizzling, all conspire to make it very difficult for there to be a rational public conversation about anything. Instead we get pieces that proclaim that an Oscar win for the wrong film will be a disaster for us all. But fortunately that is not the whole picture. There are thoughtful, intelligent and knowledgeable people out there, participating in the discussion. There are still long-form essays, nuanced books and complex films. The problem is not that they are not there, the problem is that everybody seems to be so busy getting outraged that they do not have time to engage with these works, or to distinguish between what is important and what is not. Sometimes the proper, or even radical, thing to do is not to be outraged.


This piece is related to one I wrote two years ago. This one.

In a Twitter discussion I observed, but did not participate in, a film critic was accused of having said something racist. When the critic replied that he had never said that line he was accused of having said, the response was "Do not try to make this to be about facts."

*To clarify, Lincoln and Lee were not equivalents. Lincoln was president, and Lee a commanding general. Lincoln's Southern equivalent was Jefferson Davis.

I also rewrote a few sentences in the second paragraph.