Monday, August 8, 2016

A Few Words About Taste

I'll confess, I have no idea how to start this. There's this large, wide open space sitting in front of me and I worry that whatever my first post is won't be able to fill it. I considered talking about one of my favorites or doing some pseudo-intellectual breakdown of the pros and cons of anime and manga in general, but eventually I decided to settle on a subject that's relevant across all mediums and is more important than ever in the era of the internet when thoughts can fly and clash and kick up sparks from across the globe.

Taste. Taste in shows. Taste in books. Taste in movies. Taste in art. Whatever medium it may be, everyone has their own taste. I feel like we can all agree on this: each person will inevitably have personal preferences towards the kind of stuff they like. Kinda obvious. Unfortunately though, it's more complex than this. It's too harsh of a world for everyone to just happily enjoy what they enjoy and be done with it. As soon as people start sharing their opinions with each other, the following happens.

People become inseparable from their taste.

No longer can you just be two people independent of your contrasting feelings on, say, Fullmetal Alchemist. Now, how you feel about that show directly impacts how you are viewed as a person. Assumptions are made about your values. Your intelligence. The other kinds of shows you like. And, to make matters worse, you as the judged are very aware of this phenomenon. You can read the terrain and figure out what kind of person would like Fullmetal Alchemist, and you can apply this knowledge directly to yourself. Now liking Fullmetal Alchemist isn't just a matter of enjoying a TV show, it helps to define who you are, both for others, externally, and for yourself internally. After all, whether we like it or not we are all to some degree shaped by the opinions others hold of us, and therefore the conscious decision to declare ourselves a fan of a certain piece of art is akin to declaring a part of our own ego. I've encountered this problem personally on many occasions, going so far as to try to enjoy stories I don't so that I can include the assumptions of their fandoms as part of me. I've tried to wander away from my own taste because I didn't like what that taste said about me, or because I liked what a different taste said about me better.

Well, after many trials and tribulations, here are a few words I have at this particular point on the road.

Who we are is less determined by what we like than it is why we like those things.

This also seems kinda obvious when you look at it, but it's something that seems to be forgotten near-constantly as I pour through discussion threads and spiteful reviews. I've seen a number of reddit posts titled "(insert show) Is Not as Good as r/amime Thinks it is", I watched as a fellow reviewer turned his entire homepage into a parody of One Punch Man fans, and just the other day I found a MAL club with the tagline "Re:Zero fans are called Re:Tards!", not that using the word 'retard' as an insult is remotely acceptable anyways. Now don't get me wrong, I'm all for critical discussion, but at the end of the day this is entirely out of hand. The speed at which popular shows turn into landmines of negativity is simply unacceptable, and the same goes for the violent criticism lobbed at those whose taste is 'elitist'. But the main problem I see here is not just that such aggressive attacks on people are unwarranted, it's that they seem to miss the underlying truth of stories in the first place: that everyone brings their own experiences to the table. When I watch Fullmetal Alchemist it will never be the same as when someone else watched Fullmetal Alchemist because a large portion of the viewing experience will inevitably be a simple matter of who the viewer is. This could be as simple as being tired or cranky, or it could be a difference in political views, or a disinterest in action shows, or any number of other far more nuanced personal factors. Simply put, it isn't the same show. No matter how controlled the atmosphere, no matter how universally applicable the themes, two people watching Fullmetal Alchemist will never have the exact same experience.

Now, I'm not one to preach that art is subjective, and I'm certainly not one to preach that morals are subjective. I think that there are elements of all craft that can be isolated and praised, and I think that there is an inherent good and bad in this wildly complicated world we live in. I also think the two are related. It's entirely possible to break down the elements of a story and try to explain why you think it succeeds or doesn't succeed, but no matter how much you dislike something I feel as though it's important to remember that the people that do like it may hold that opinion for reasons you can't even begin to understand. You may harp on Fullmetal Alchemist for its predictable story structure or repetitive characters, but maybe a fan found someone they could truly relate to in Ed and fell in love with the world building and gorgeous depictions of the landscape. Add this to the aforementioned truth that you simply didn't have the same experience with the show as them, and trying to pass any sort of verdict on them based solely on how much they enjoyed the show seems utterly absurd. However, there is another possibility in this scenario: say, for example, that this fan x enjoyed the show because they've been whiny and disagreeable their whole life and they liked stepping into a fantasy world where it's everyone else who's wrong and they get the girl without having to change anything about themselves. Is this something you can critique?

I think the answer is yes. This is a bit of a toxic worldview. In this instance, the Fullmetal Alchemist acts as an enabler for the person watching it, steeping them further in a philosophy that will continuously harm them and those around them. It may not even be the philosophy the show is pushing: that's not the point here. The point is, this is where the conversation is that needs to be had, not with whatever the show happens to be in the first place and whatever you think that show says about its viewership. It's not everyone's duty to act the righteous deliverer on the internet and constantly point out to everyone else the flaws in their own thought process, but I am saying that if you're going to get all excited about what someone's taste says about them you should be honing in on why they have that taste and not what that taste is, coincidentally, in a vacuum. Otherwise, you're just using your opinion as a hurtful weapon to further force people to feel as though the stories they like and who they are are hopelessly entwined. Otherwise, you're causing both yourself and others to become more detached from the raw passion of reading or watching something that's legitimately meaningful to you. Otherwise, you promote the notion that stories are about being smart or dumb, right or wrong, rather than learning something. If you don't like something, pay attention to why you don't like it, and if you do like something hone in on what it is that makes it work for you. Those are the kind of thoughts others want to hear. There's not much more than that to a real, earnest discussion of art. 

Oh, and for the record, I've never seen Fullmetal Alchemist.

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