On “Objective” Reviews and the Importance of Being Earnest
An appeal to objectivity is something that everyone has probably encountered at some stage. The word tends to get bandied around in art criticism when someone voices an unpopular opinion, usually a negative one. It’s silly, because you wouldn’t think there’s any objectivity to be found in something as nebulous as art, but it’s still a popular way of thinking (especially with the TrueAnime crowd).
Objectivity is a dangerous word.
Why? Because despite being ill-defined in most conversations, the word ‘objectivity’ still has power. It implies balanced, rational thinking. If you appeal to objectivity, it makes your position sound more credible, even if it isn’t.
You see this sort of thinking everywhere, not just with art criticism. “Objective” can be shorthand for presenting multiple sides of an issue with equal weight (often a fallacy). Other times, it’s shorthand for appealing to the majority opinion. And most of the time it implies “without emotion”, which just means erasing your more obvious biases while assuming your subconscious bias is the default way of looking at the world.
I touched on this before in my Aldnoah post about rationality, but it’s a really unempathetic worldview because it’s so self-validating. More recently, Guy wrote a post about how “objectivity” relates to fandom – you don’t want an objective review, you want your opinion parroted. I chased him up to clarify some of the points he wrote about in his article.
1) Opening Salvos:
Guy: Tribalism and fandom. Yes, if there’s one thread woven throughout all my editorials of recent years, it’s breaking down why tribalism is bad.
Why over-identification is bad.
Froggy: It’s similar to religious cults in that sense. It also reminds me of the whole “don’t bring in politics into reviewing” mode of thought.
Guy: Hm. Everything’s political. “Don’t bring politics into it” usually means “Don’t challenge the status quo”/ As if the status quo isn’t political. Also, as my post states, the problem with “appeal to objectivity” is that it’s not objectivity, it’s “What I think is right”, which is tied to the above.
Look closely at who usually champions “appeals to objectivity”; It’s young men, who think what they think is somehow not subjective. In other words, people too busy to tell everyone else how much their shit stinks to not notice they shit too ;)
2) Different Fields, Different Meanings?
Froggy: What’s the difference when these clueless young men do it and when academics and journalists do it?
Guy: Journalists aren’t in the same position as academics, in this sense. Though sometimes they are.
When journalists speak of “objectivity” there are, well, three things they might reference, all of which get conflated.
The first is when they think they present matters “as are”, but it’s through their cultural biases, so they’re using it wrong, like people who want objective game reviews.
The second is when they DO just present to you things as are, such as tallies, rain amounts, etc. But still, what you focus on, even if everything you say is objectively true, is affected by biases.
What journalists usually mean by “objectivity” is “we present both sides”. That’s not really objective, but it’s there to show it’s “cancelled subjectivity”, as it were.
Academics, well, again, there are a few things, some of which are tied to what journalists purportedly do, what the young people say, which is false.
The first thing is, “We present opinions other than our own,” such as when you present an article giving an “overview” of a topic. How “History papers” are “objective”. But it’s, well, not true.
That’s something discussed more since the 60s; There’s no such thing as objectivity here. There are merely attempts to control for it. As years go by, people don’t try to be objective, because they know they can’t, in academia, but rather tell you beforehand what their biases are, and try to consciously account for it.
Academia as a whole is considered “objective” in the same sense of “both sides”, that the biases of one side are accounted for by the other. But two subjective accounts do not an objective one make. And the last account is, again, when they supposedly give an account of how things are, which academia sometimes does do, such as in chemistry and physics, and that’s literally objectively true, as far as we know, in the sense it’s not subjective ;)
But, even in academia, the “myth of objectivity” is quickly being shooed away. Yes, fields such as economics keep saying how objective they are, while sociology and cultural studies keep shaking their heads and showing how they’re not.
3) Self Blindness:
Froggy: I think that’s the reason I find economic history more interesting, because those within that field realise that very fact. Historians are always in disagreement with each other; the only “objective” history I know of is the one taught in schools, which is always heavily filtered through nationalist lenses.
Guy: One of the problems with the so-called “objectivity of history” is that, as the saying goes, “The victors write history”, the truth is, “Historians create history.” Well, most fields have “Philosophy of X” and more recently, “Sociology of X”.
Art is an interesting instance in this case, look at philosophy of aesthetics.
One of the definitions they provide for art is literally, “What the art world decides is art.” People can accept it in art, but it’s true for most fields.
You can appreciate something on its artistic qualities, without regard to how it emotionally affected you. I appreciate some anime shows without caring for them, or don’t appreciate them though I care for them, but it’s still filtered through biases.
But there are sometimes objective qualities. It’s not like, “If I say it’s good, it’s good.” Even if sometimes “objective qualities” means “agreed upon by most people,” which is why LNs are objectively bad, because most people, when reading an LN and reading actual fiction and asked which is better, will say the same thing.
Froggy: That’s what I think “objective” is shorthand for.
Guy: And the “Art world” will say the same thing. But sometimes people push politics into it, as an attempt to push out so-called “politics”, where they translate “most people” to “shouting harder” combined with, “moral right of way”.
4) What do People Mean – Morality?
Guy: LNs are worse than books, but you won’t say it’s immoral to read them, right?
But you should. According to Socrates, even. Because you’re wasting your time, time you could spend bettering yourself :P Likewise, if a video game is objectively good. To give it a bad score is to lead people astray. It’s immoral to denigrate something that is objectively good. And thus, the tables are flipped.
I toched on it once on my blog, about morality:
If you find something moral, you have a moral obligation to encourage it. If you find something immoral, you have a moral obligation to discourage it. You can say, “He likes ice cream, I don’t, but it’s alright.” You cannot say “He likes ice cream, which I find immoral, but it’s alright.”
And that’s how it all comes falling down, how all the pieces fit together, because people who speak of “objectivity” do two more things:
- 1. They think said objectivity is moral.
- 2. They think morality is objective.
5) Morality into Rationality:
Froggy: So… circular logic?
Guy: Circular logic is not always a fallacy, in this sense.
That’s not circular logic either. I’m explaining how it drives them to action: They can accept it’s beliefs, rather than logic.But those two beliefs, which are complementary, rather than circular, lead them on their crusades. “I believe objective truths exist” is the third belief.
It’s not circular, you can find the root.
The point is this, they believe this is the one true morality, and they also think objectivity is moral, which means that peddling subjectivity is immoral. And it falls to them to stop it. As it falls to any of us to stop what we find immoral.
Froggy: “If only everyone thought as rationally as I did, there’d be world peace!”
That’s the thing most of these people have the hardest time with, a tough concept, even in philosophy, called “Rational disagreement,” where both of us believe in the same facts, but disagree on the conclusion. Take abortion for instance. If we disagree on when the child develops consciousness, or whether God mandated anything on the matter, it’s not rational disagreement. But what if we both agreed when the child developed consciousness, and that God said nothing on the topic, and are still split on the issue?
You can see it in most fora discussion on anime too: “If only you saw all the issues with X, you wouldn’t think it’s a good show.” (Let’s put aside “like”, most non-terrible people can agree you can like something even if you see its flaws.) And then you can tell people, “No, I know all that is wrong with it, and I still like it.” – But it might not be true rational disagreement, because we assign different weight to different things. Such as me valuing characters more and you valuing world-building more, etc.
But yes, many people assume, even if they never think of it, that if you hold the same values as they, you will definitely agree with their conclusions. And of course, what better values to hold than the objective ones?
So Guy has established that appealing to “objectivity” is a short-sighted thing to do. How, then, are people supposed to overcome their natural biases and agree on things? Is the correct answer to every argument ever “Yeah, well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man“?
No. That’s where empathy comes in.
“Objectivity” is appealing because it’s an individualist way of thinking. While on the surface it might seem like you’re deferring to an external body of knowledge, the individual makes this judgement on the behalf of others. Improve yourself and your awareness of cognitive biases and you can claim to be more objective. This type of thinking doesn’t permit you to trust others. You can only trust your own judgement. Little wonder that this way of thinking is popular among libertarians and self-styled Objectivists.
Human knowledge isn’t an individual endeavour, though. Knowledge is accumulated through mass collaboration over many, many years. In order to absorb new ideas, you need to engage with people very different from yourself. In other words, you can’t just rely on your own judgement. This is one of the reasons why peer review is such a necessary part of academia.
Nobody can claim to speak the absolute truth. This does not matter. Empathising with a different point of view does not mean accepting it as fact. By listening to more diverse voices, you won’t erase your personal bias, but you can mitigate it somewhat.
The most important step, then, is to listen earnestly.
Reviews aren’t objective. Good reviews don’t even attempt that. But they do attempt to justify a particular subjective interpretation by pointing to evidence. It’s quite normal to understand where a critic is coming from but not to agree with their conclusion. This doesn’t mean they’ve somehow failed, though.
Also, a critic’s opinion isn’t superior to that of an ordinary fan’s. Critics are fans, for the most part. But critics do attempt to spell out their reasoning process clearly, and that’s why their opinions are more useful than unjustified assertions. Note the difference between “useful” and “objective”.
Aspire to be critical and earnest. These are better goals than objectivity.