The internet has democratised opinion. At this point this is one of the few things I think we can all agree upon. What once was a discussion at the pub or over the dinner table has become the dominant global discourse. Opinions from a vast spectrum of differing backgrounds, nationalities and ages are now given equal attention under the assumption that they are all valid due to these differences and our own subjectivity on a given topic. But there lies the problem.
While it is true all opinions are allowed, or should be in a ‘free’ society, it is also true that in quite a few places around the world certain opinions have been rejected by society at large. The idea that women should be allowed to vote and have reproductive rights is an opinion, the idea that people of colour are, in fact, human beings could too be considered an opinion, the idea that you should be allowed to choose a partner based on your sexual preference rather than another’s is an opinion and are all opinions (I thought) were generally accepted and understood to be moral advancements of our species. Unfortunately, with this open forum for global debate, fringe voices of an ignorant few have been allowed to fester and spawn, resulting in the belief that none of the above opinions are to be accepted as ‘truth’. The trouble here is that these fringe voices point to ‘Science’ or ‘demands for evidence’ i.e. Objective methods of proving the opinions that lead to an improved society. The trouble with objectivity when applied to humanity is that it rarely looks good for human life. The Universe is purely objective and continually destroys planets, has animals eat their young, gives bone cancer to children, causes earthquakes and mudslides and is generally a callous, unfeeling monster that would wipe us out without a second thought, not knowing or caring what we are. In short, killing Jews was the Nazis being objective in achieving their Aryan goal.
Ironically, opinion doesn’t require facts or evidence, or can simply manipulate or cherry pick facts and evidence. People arguing for objectivity love stats and numbers, saying “The Numbers don’t lie” but in the same breath insisting that sexism doesn’t exist because the numbers say so. Talk to any woman anywhere in the world and most of them will be able to give an example (whether they acknowledge it as such or not) of some sort of discrimination or harassment that happened that week. Equally people can outright lie due to their opinion and present it as fact, ignoring the vast weight of history or empirical evidence to the contrary. This isn’t necessarily a new phenomenon. Religion has denied the existence of Dinosaurs in favour of their respective origin stories for centuries. What is new is the amount of people listening and people agreeing with whatever wild theory is available. Whereas you could sit in a room with a racist once upon a time and be disgusted with them and then ask them to leave, today… less so. That person now demands their free speech and their right to be heard, despite the fact as a society at large most countries have rejected that idea. You could not stop someone having an opinion before the internet and social media, but you could ostracise that opinion. We allowed the opinion to exist but not if you wanted to be part of the whole. The larger group chose their opinion and it did not include the far reaches of right wing thought. But now the people arguing for their stupid ideologies that were dispensed with a hundred years ago (white supremacy, sexism, etc) have found their own large group and their voices must be heard because “they have been silenced for too long”.
My favourite example of how poorly this so called 'democratisation of opinion' works is in the likes of Rotten Tomatoes or MetaCritic, websites that aggregate reviews of media into a percentage out of 100. This is supposedly a fair and unbiased (i.e. objective) method of assessing the value of a given movie/TV show and so on. Despite the fact campaigns (by racists) have insisted Rotten Tomatoes sabotaged Justice League's scores so everyone should down vote Black Panther in response (ignoring the fact Warner Brothers, who released Justice League, own Rotten Tomatoes). And on the flip side, Rotten Tomatoes rates the 1990 film ‘The Witches’ higher than ‘The Godfather’. While I personally enjoy the former more than the latter I’m aware that isn’t the actual public consensus, and many consider Coppola’s masterpiece one of the all-time classics of cinema. For me, these aggregate review sites prove one thing: A complex opinion cannot be represented numerically. The fact we try is a damning indictment on our current approach to ‘The Discourse’ of the Internet.
The joke behind Rotten Tomatoes and its ilk is the old adage “Everyone’s a Critic”. A phrase developed by injured artists whose work has been criticised by someone whose opinion they don’t care for, which nowadays has become a shorthand Dad Joke for when a baby starts crying during a movie. All of which is a pretty apt metaphor for Rotten Tomatoes et al, I think…
The point I’m trying to make is that no one is a critic because no one is truly critical, or at least they certainly don't act it. Criticism requires self-reflection as much as any outward analysis, and not in a “ooh I’m my own worst critic” way, in a fair and wide-ranging way. In the academic field of criticism there are different ‘schools’ of criticism, different methods, and any ‘take’ on a work in the Humanities is seen as a reading. Cultural analysis sees everything as a ‘Text’ to be ‘Read’ and this reading is always subjective, open to be criticised itself in return, so we might better understand a given work’s nuances, its merits and its failures. The more we feel a reading has chimed with the original text the closer we feel to it and the better we might proceed with similar things in the future. This is opinion by aggregate, a natural gravitation toward more generally accepted, more inclusive, ideas. And, coincidentally, a wholly subjective and biased method of review and criticism.
Not a day goes by anymore without someone insisting that arguing for a just, fair and kind society is the work of the devil, or foolish, childish Utopian dreaming. Open any social media site and within a few scrolls you will find an example of ‘The Discourse’: Two people arguing vehemently over whether calling the police on a black woman in a swimming pool was a good or bad thing to do (it was a bad thing to do). Whilst I would like to say this isn’t progress, it is. With the internet and social media we have discovered everyone does not “hold these truths to be self-evident” and whilst it has legitmised extremist views and voices, it has proved we have not come as far as we thought and the war we thought we had won is still raging. It has given legitimacy and strength to other voices too, women, people of colour, LGBQT+ and more. As much as I have grown to loathe Twitter (thanks to it being run by a right-wing apologist) its function of lancing the festering, suppurating boil at the core of western society has been an incredible success. It has revealed us all to be solipsistic monsters, contorting ourselves into knots to support our own blinkered beliefs and experiences. We are seeing the full weight of these consequences brought to bear in the age of Trump, Putin, Brexit, etc and unfortunately it is only through these horrific and tectonic shifts will we finally begin to understand one another and after whatever global catastrophe awaits us at the end of it all, we will be able to move forward and leave behind the idiocies of this age. I hope it doesn’t come to that and we can all learn to be truly critical of ourselves before others but given the way things are at the moment, things aren’t going that way quick enough.
Oscar Wilde wrote “It is personalities not principles that move the age”. Over a hundred years and two world wars later and this is still the case. This kind of cultural stagnation in spite of progress in every other area is what is leading us down the road we are currently on. We all know what those principles are, or should be, now is the time they should be placed before ourselves or we’ll be stuck arguing against The Last Jedi being the cause of the White Holocaust for a generation.