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Thursday, September 10, 2015

If You Haven’t Engaged with the Work, Your Opinion Is Worthless

You Have to Read a Book before You Can Judge It

In one of the greatest works of Western literature, personifications of fear and adventure argue over the dangers of the unknown. For pages, they argue back and forth, caught at a dramatic standstill, until at the book’s great turning point, the personification of adventure (here known as Sam-I-Am) counsels the personification of fear, “You do not like them, so you say. Try them, try them, and you may. Try them, and you may, I say.”

The book is, of course, Dr. Seuss’s classic Green Eggs and Ham. Its debate over the wisdom of trying something new has enchanted children and their parents for decades.

Green Eggs and Ham has been much on my mind of late because of two recent news stories.

First, there is the story about the student at Duke who has declined to complete the assigned summer reading that forms the core of the Duke Common Experience program because he feels the work’s depiction of sex is pornographic and immoral. He wishes to “avoid any titillating content and encourage like-minded students to do the same.”

Second, there is the recent blog post at the Guardian that dismisses the late Terry Pratchett as “a mediocrity” who produced “trash” for “a middlebrow cult of the popular [that] is holding literature to ransom.” The post was written by an arts columnist who smugly confesses to never having read a word that Pratchett produced.

I would like to know when it became an acceptable critical stance to condemn a work of art without ever having engaged with it.

Even the Supreme Court, when debating whether Louis Malle’s film Les Amants constituted hard-core pornography, implied that in order to know whether the work was pornographic, one would have to see it — not merely read a description of its contents. Justice Potter Stewart wrote,

I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [“hard-core pornography”], and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.

If you engage with the work of art, you are entitled to an opinion about it.

If, instead, you refuse to read or view or listen to it — or taste the green eggs and ham — you don’t get to have an opinion. Knowing what you’re talking about is the bare minimum requirement for expecting other people to care about your opinion of a cultural product.

What is distressing to me — and to all lovers of art and of free expression — is that of late we appear to be taking seriously the opinions of those who have not ponied up even that very minimal buy-in. We wouldn’t pay attention to restaurant reviews written by someone who has never been to the restaurant in question. Why are we reading — and accepting — evaluations of literature by people who have never read the books they’re condemning?

We wouldn’t pay attention to restaurant reviews written by someone who has never been to the restaurant in question. 

It’s not a high standard. I’m not calling for a “critic’s license” or saying that one must have an advanced degree, or 25 years of experience, or a sheaf of academic articles and a stack of books to one’s name in order to have an opinion about art.

I’m just saying that if you want me to take you seriously when you tell me that something is great, or awful, or trash, or immoral, or pornography, you should probably have actually made contact with the thing you’re talking about.

Now, I do give the Duke student more credit than I give the art critic from the Guardian. The Duke student does say that he researched the book’s content and read a portion of it. Then he decided to opt out of reading the remainder. I would feel entirely different had he merely “read about” Fun Home. Other people’s assessments are no substitutes for your own.

I’m not impressed by his arguments, however, and I’m not persuaded that his refusal to engage with morally challenging works makes him the stalwart defender of Christian morality he presents himself as being. John Milton, no slouch in the Christianity department, reminds us:

Since therefore the knowledge and survay of vice is in this world so necessary to the constituting of human vertue, and the scanning of error to the confirmation of truth, how can we more safely, and with lesse danger scout into the regions of sin and falsity then by reading all manner of tractats, and hearing all manner of reason?”

Milton also argues that even “bad books” are useful because “they to a discreet and judicious Reader serve in many respects to discover, to confute, to forewarn, and to illustrate.”

So perhaps virtue needs to be allied with knowledge in order to be something more than hollow.

But, having made some minimal contact with the work in question, the Duke freshman, at least, is entitled to his opinion.

I am also entitled to say that I do not think it is an opinion that will stand this freshman in good stead as he continues through his university education. I do not think it is an opinion that promotes the reasoned debates and the intellectual engagement that mark a good education and that help build a civil society. I think he ought to go read Milton’s Areopagitica, and John Stuart Mill’s “On the Liberty of Thought and Discussion,” and Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham. And I think he’d better think long and hard about whether he is really prepared for the intellectual work that a real education should demand from him and from all students. In his four years at Duke he may well (he certainly should) encounter works that shake his worldview, or that offend his morality, or that simply bore and annoy him. Not all adventures with the unknown give us delicious green eggs and ham. Some of them give us the horror of Heart of Darkness. But if we run from those experiences, safely offered to us through the filter of art and the classroom, how can we say we are educated? If we travel or explore or experience only in order to confirm our fixed opinions, why don’t we just stay home and save ourselves a lot of time and money?

As for the critic from the Guardian?

I think he ought to know better. Since he doesn’t, I think he should stop talking. I don’t want him to tell me what to eat for lunch, either.