Sometimes our enthusiasm can get out of hand.
The hyperbolic nature of our cultural discourse encourages us to take strong positions on the things we like. Everything has to be either “amazing” or “terrible”, with little room for variation in between. These sorts of statements are driven primarily by emotion, even if they’re nicely dressed up with logical arguments (or at least the pretense of them). But emotions are a tricky thing; they can mislead you or cause you to overlook things a less enthusiastic observer might notice. There’s nothing wrong with being emotionally invested in the things you like, but at some point, if you ever want to have a productive conversation with someone about it, you need to be able to set that enthusiasm aside.
Take, for instance, one of the Culture Tsar’s favorite films of the last five years, Mad Max: Fury Road. When this movie comes up in conversation, the discussion goes one of two ways; either the other person loves the movie as well and proceeds to describe just how much they love it, or they bristle and mutter something about “not getting what all the fuss was about”. In the latter situation, sharing all the reasons the movie excites you isn’t going to get very far. Instead, you have to remove those emotional responses and talk about the film from a critical, pragmatic standpoint. In this case, the Culture Tsar usually deploys the “art film as action movie” argument, pointing out that the structure of the film as a two hour long car chase is the whole point of the movie and then indicating how the cinematography, production design, and practical effects all combine to serve that concept. The goal of the conversation at that point is not to make the other person “like” the movie, but rather to make a persuasive case for why it’s a good film even though they don’t care for it.
Internet commentary has largely debased what we used to call “criticism” because most people can’t seem to put their emotional attachments aside. There’s also a tendency to project one’s own feelings onto the general public. A friend recently related to the Culture Tsar that he argued with someone who believes The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is the greatest video game of all time and that it “changed gaming forever.” Now, despite the fact that the Culture Tsar loves Skyrim, he found this statement to be completely and objectively ridiculous. Setting aside question of whether it’s the best game ever (spoiler alert: it’s not even the best game in the Elder Scrolls series, but let’s save that for another post), what on earth does the phrase “changed gaming forever” actually mean? When pressed on this statement, the person said vague things about gameplay options and open world game design, but all of these things existed in various degrees long before Skyrim. Furthermore, Skyrim didn’t spark an entirely new breed of video games afterward. Open world rpgs existed for more than a decade before Skyrim’s release in 2011, and even if you restrict that category to first person rpgs, even those had become fairly common by the early 2000s.
But the person wasn’t making an objective argument; he was defining the game according to his own experience. For that particular gamer, Skyrim changed the way he viewed games forever. The problem is that he couldn’t set his emotional response to the game aside long enough to recognize that his enthusiasm said more about him encountering something for the first time than it did about the game itself.
Everyone wants to play the role of critic these days, but not enough people out there understand the role of criticism. Put simply, it’s not about you. Just because a work of art provokes an emotional response from you doesn’t automatically mean it’s objectively good. The Culture Tsar may love listening to Bryan Adams songs, but he’s never going to make the argument that Adams was one of the most influential and important artists of his era (tempting though it may be). If you want to engage in serious critical discussion, you not only need to curb your enthusiasm, you need to curbstomp it.