I’d like to ruminate on the difference between subjective dislike and objective condemnation in the context of social/cultural criticism in liberal discourse. So, let’s define some terms. When I say subjective dislike, I mean a sentence like, “I don’t like country music because it just doesn’t click with me.” That phrasing is not an attack on the intrinsic value of country music as an artform. It’s a statement about personal taste. Objective condemnation, on the other hand, would be something like, “slavery is an unequivocally evil institution that values greed over human life and dignity.” This is not a statement of preference. It’s an assertion about a fundamental fact of our shared reality.
Okay, terms defined.
Now, I think it’s evident that when people play fast and loose with these two modes of critique, using them interchangeably or failing to exercise the self-reflection needed to differentiate the two when leveling a criticism, we get sloppy thinking (at best) and some seriously ugly prejudice (at worst). This kind of lazy thinking is what warps “I don’t like rap music” into the much more odious “rap is the music of the violent and the ignorant.” It isn’t hard for me to think of examples of this behavior from the political right, but those examples aren’t what prompted this post. I’m writing this because of sloppy liberal criticism. This trend, especially on the left, is really bothering me lately. It’s especially bothersome because I like to arrogantly believe that liberals are the more subtle, reflective thinkers of the political spectrum. A couple recent examples of this that come to mind range from wholesale dismissal of the concept of marriage to barbs (from academia) aimed at the value of commercial fiction. Here’s the thing. I’m not trying to build fortifications aimed at sparing the things I myself enjoy from criticism. Nor am I advocating a kind of vast, ambiguous relativism that shies away from any declarative statements related to merits or flaws. I’m saying the impulse that turns “marriage isn’t for me” into “marriage shouldn’t be for anybody” is born of laziness and a transparent lack of confidence that requires the criticizer to hide behind objective condemnation rather than standing behind their own subjective dislike. I’m not pretending that I’ve never done this. Like most pet peeves, this is something I struggle to avoid. Here’s a tip. Stick to specific critiques and avoid pronouncing definitive sentence on huge, complex, multi-faceted groups or concepts. Want to criticize traditional models of marriage in Victorian England as a tool of the patriarchy and explore the echoes of that tradition in the modern American tradition of marriage as reflected in protestant communities in upstate New York? Great. Do that. Want to use a specific example or personal anecdote as a springboard to an objective condemnation of marriage or an entire profession or a genre of fiction or a type of media/entertainment? Kindly realize that you are engaging in the same ugly impulse to categorize and dismiss that we liberals proudly fight against when applied to banned books or vulnerable populations or marginalized communities or oft-ignored voices.
Does context matter? Sure. I’m not one of those #NotAllMen jackasses that tries to derail important discussions with nonsensical defenses of populations that don’t need defending. But that doesn’t mean we need to adopt the kind of sloppy thinking and intellectual laziness that paves the way to unexamined prejudices and dismissive, reductive thinking about complex issues.