“Objectivity” is the bane of my existence.
Mostly, it’s because “objectivity” is one of those concepts that’s impossible to define because the pure version of it doesn’t exist. Every living person experiences the world through the filter of a near-infinite number of psychological and physical filters that color their perception in subtle or dramatic ways. When people seek (or claim to practice) “objective” journalism, for example, what’s really being sought is generally “not openly biased” or “not agenda-driven” journalism. Like fairness, objectivity is a quality that everyone seems to want, but no one can really agree upon its definition.
Which makes it a colossal pain for those of us in the business of opinion and criticism.
The fact is, reaction to the creative arts is the least objective thing in existence. Our response is to something created solely/principally to stimulate the subjective senses. Everyone has their own unique take on what effect sights, sounds, smells, tastes, etc. have on them, and no two people will ever experience a book, film, game, whatever in exactly the same way.
Thusly, it’s common to hear people devalue the work of critics on the basis that “everyone has different opinions,” a factual statement used to imply that the critic’s opinion is not really of any greater value than any random person’s. For the most part, this is a simple misunderstanding of what a critic’s job is. The point isn’t that the critic’s opinion is “right” while yours is “wrong,” the point is that the critic is (ideally) more practiced/experienced with the subject at hand and thus their insights can help give you a greater understanding (or even reconsideration) of your own reactions. To put it another way, I don’t critique movies to tell you how to spend your money, I critique movies to give you some of my thoughts to incorporate into your own decision making about how to spend your money.
More problematically, the impossible demand for “pure objectivity” in criticism often leads to people throwing around accusations of subjectivity or “bias” as a way of attacking a critic when their opinion doesn’t match one’s own. I’ll cop to having been as guilty of this as anyone else in the past, having spent many a thread sniping at Hollywood Elsewhere’s Jeff Wells, for example, for “bias” about this or that movie given his (open) contempt for geek culture. But, as I’ve come to better appreciate how this business looks from the professional side, I’ve also come to find better uses for a journalist’s so-called bias than anger. When last year Wells (who gave me/us a nice unsolicited shout-out this week) took to Twitter to declare his resounding approval for Captain America: The First Avenger, it was to me a great indicator that the movie was probably pretty damn good if it could melt Wells’ superhero-hating heart.
The problem is that, too often, the word “bias” (which just about everyone has, positively or negatively, in regards to just about anything) gets thrown around interchangeably with “unfair bias” or “dishonest bias.” We all have personal preferences, and reading any more than a handful of any given critic’s reviews usually reveals what said critic counts as their favorite or least-favorite genres, styles, artists, etc. Pre-internet, when criticism was generally discussed/debated primarily among the similarly devoted, this was an accepted facet of human (and, thus, journalistic) behavior. A critic would have to step incredibly far outside the boundaries of professionalism or public decorum for anyone to even think of throwing out accusations of dishonesty or ulterior agendas – and these were the days when a bad review actually could sink a movie! When such talk did come, it was often related to politics. Pauline Kael famously branded the original Dirty Harry movie “fascist” and angry fans widely attributed the opinion to her left-wing political views.
All of this, of course, has changed with the advent of the internet and an unending digital news cycle. Readers and viewers, saturated day in and day out in a media culture of infobite reviews consisting of little more than a plot description and star rating often react with confusion toward criticism of (attempted, at least) substance, as if unsure of how to approach critiques that come from an identifiable perspective or voice. So acclimated have we become to reviews intentionally stripped of personality so as to strike the reader as something they could see themselves saying that the hint of any bias (or even mere preference) seems exceptional … and alien.
Writers are often advised to “write what you know,” a simple way of encouraging one to remain invested in their work by using their own experiences, feelings, etc. as a key point of reference. But when a critic does this, it’s instantly seized upon as a reason to invalidate any opinion they may offered that opposed that of those doing the seizing. If a critic happens to belong to a racial/ethnic minority, anything they have to say about racial issues in a work is immediately suspect – they’re “too sensitive” about the issue, and this has biased them against the work. Female critics (particularly female critics of videogames, lately) are roundly dismissed if they raise the specter of sexism or misogyny, doubly so if they’ve ever identified as “feminist,” since everyone knows that means they’re already walking around in a panicked funk looking to brand every poor, innocent male in their path as “sexist” for no good reason at all … right, bro?
Meanwhile, though white heterosexual males in the criticism biz may be “safe” from that manner of backlash (after all, their personal/psychological preferences are simply the “normal” societal-default, or hadn’t you heard?), they still have the permanence and searchability of the internet to contend with. If a critic ever had anything negative to say about a filmmaker, actor, movie-franchise, game designer, game developer, game franchise, etc. in the past, they can expect to have these opinions used as “evidence” of a longstanding, objectivity-invalidating bias should they negatively review a related work. “U R BIAS! U DECIDED 2 HATE THIS MOVIE WHEN YOU SAID IT POSTER SUXXORD ON OCTOBER 22ND 2011 AT 4:27AM EST!”
Game critics get this especially hard, given how frequently games sequelize, how little change often occurs between installments and the sheer volume of different factions hair-triggered for offense:
“You hate EVERY Call of Duty!”
“Huh. You’re right, and that’s VERY suspect since each one is so radically different from the others!”
“You never like ANY first-party Nintendo games!”
“Dang! You’ve found me out! It’s obvious I’ve just been out to get them, since it’s not like Nintendo’s first-party titles, while different, maintain an identifiable ‘house style’ that I’m not personally in love with or anything.”
“You just don’t like it because it’s a PS3/Xbox exclusive and YOU’RE an Xbox/PS3 fanboy!”
“Ye gods … its true! And kind of baffling, since I clearly have the access to the machine in question required to play the game and thus very little reason to be ‘pulling’ for its success or failure. I am clearly a very, very silly person.”
This is, to be certain, partly just me venting about the minor annoyances of my otherwise exceptionally rewarding job, but I wouldn’t be writing this up if that was the sole motivation. I can handle being bothered “at work,” but I really do think that this situation lowers the discourse.
Yes, unfair bias masquerading as objective journalism (or honest criticism) exists, and is a problem. But if we continue enshrining bland, rote, personality-free breakdowns (as though the quality of a creative work is a “fact” to be “reported” on) of movies or games as the “proper” criticism, instead of accepting that the manner in which all of our unique experience and perspectives color and inform our opinions is what makes our opinions worth sharing and worth hearing, I worry that we’re losing a vital part of the human conversation.
A good critic’s personal likes, dislikes, preferences and yes, biases shouldn’t be treated as disqualifying professional flaws. They should be the reason we seek their thoughts out in the first place.
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.