"Familiarity breeds contempt."
Perhaps it is this little saying, or some variation of it, that convinces people that disdain and discernment are the same thing: that the more things you roll your eyes at, the smarter you must be. After all, you have the most contempt, so you must have the most familiarity. Under this model, to enjoy art or entertainment is to be conquered, but to dismiss it is to defeat it. And the more other people have been conquered by something, the more it distinguishes you to dismiss it.
After all, when you enjoy or respect or are affected by a movie, you are usually responding to it at least in part as its creators intended. In a sense, you've been, for that period of time, obedient. The director and the screenwriters and the actors and the crew, they led you, and you followed. They set a trap — of suspense, or romantic tension, or comedic payoff — and you fell right into it. The director said, "Hey, that's a mighty nice henway," and you said, "What's a henway?" and the director said, "About three pounds." Sucker.
The problem is that if you watch something and you don't enjoy it, then you may still have been taken. They got you to go, to watch, to read — they got you to try it, because you didn't know enough not to.
The only way, under this rather bizarre up-is-down model of critical thinking, to defeat something is to proclaim that not only are you not enough of a sucker to enjoy it; you are not enough of a sucker to even watch it — or to listen to it, or to read it. "I wouldn't waste my money." "I wouldn't waste my time." "I wouldn't waste the effort." And, of course, the natural follow-up: "And I don't think much of people who would."
Toward a different way, after the jump.
For those with this approach, it is literally the very fact that they have no direct knowledge of the topic at hand that makes their reactions a sign of especially discerning tastes. They have proved their independence, in short, by being too clever to be fooled into obtaining any independent knowledge. As to things they expect not to like, they have removed the part of the critical process where you experience the thing, moving directly from preconception to evaluation, so the only things they even experience are the things they already think they're going to like.
People who have written off all Hollywood movies, or all television, or all popular music (or all rap, or all thrillers, or all romantic comedies), on the basis of a presupposition about quality that blankets an entire medium or genre are regrettable for their corrosive attitudes, yes. But they're even more regrettable for what they're missing. Rare indeed is the enormous vat of nothing but bathwater; there's almost always a baby in there somewhere.
Most of all, however, they are regrettable for their contributions to a giant cultural conversation increasingly polluted by detached, uninformed disdain. If familiarity breeds your contempt, that's fine. That's essential. If you saw the movie and you hated it, or you read the book and you hated it, or you watched the show and you hated it, get out there and holler. Holler. Argue vigorously, refuse to settle. That's part of how vibrant cultures are built. But if unfamiliarity breeds your contempt, then it contributes little to the discussion.
In short, this year, let's not do this. Let's not prize the things we don't know anything about and show them off like a bottle-cap collection. "I can't believe anyone reads John Grusham or whatever his name is." "I can't believe you're talking about Britney Spears, whose music I have never heard." "I haven't watched anything on television in 20 years, and everything I haven't seen has been absolutely worthless."
That's my resolution for 2010: Let's hope everything is good, even though we know much of it won't be. Let's hope to be pleasantly surprised instead of making sure we're never disappointed. Let's leave the window open, just in case there's a breeze.