I’ve always loved the work of critical theorists. True and in-depth critical thinking is perhaps the most important thing that I’ve learned in the many years that I was a university student. Critical race and gender studies were absolutely formative to the person that I have become over time. And I like this person, more and more all the time. I cannot possibly describe how incredibly satisfying it is to be able to develop original thought, based on the works of people who didn’t teach you what to think, but how to think. How to look at situations from another perspective and to imagine different possible outcomes if certain elements had been different. To think, simply and purely. To reflect and to not take what you’re fed day in and day out for granted is the greatest gift that my education could have ever given me. It’s the key to intellectual pursuits, but it’s also the ultimate form of resistance. Non-acceptance of normative ideas just because they’re ‘normal’ is a beautiful transgression to live with. It’s empowering.
And yet, at times, it is a burden. Take it too far and you not only lose your innocence, but also your ability to look at the world without judgment. And that is the last thing that I want. When I scan through a glossy magazine in a waiting room, or when I watch a nineties video clip on YouTube, and even when I see supposedly cerebral TV documentaries, I am no longer able to take them simply for what they are. It seems every cultural manifestation has meaning embedded in systems of prejudice, stereotyping, and sexism. For someone who questions everything, consuming popular culture can be a draining experience. And while that’s good in the sense that someone oughtta be bothered by this kind of thing, it’s also, admittedly, rather tiring. To be constantly stuck in a state of revolt about the injustices of the world and the ecosystem of media bullshit that sustains it is exhausting. But again, necessary. Because someone sure as hell should be angry.
But I don’t consciously seek out ‘fights’, if you will. My views are ever changing on the basis of new evidence and I try to stay open. I sometimes read things that I would normally find detrimental to human development and I watch crap television and I enjoy 90s songs with clearly misogynist messages – big butts anyone? I am full of contradictions like everyone else, so who I am to claim some sort of moral superiority? I can’t idly sit back and condone all that I see around me and I obviously don’t, but I don’t hatefully reject every manifestation that isn’t absolutely perfectly ethical and respectful because that would make my life an absolute living hell. I am also open to the lesser-of-two evils phenomenon, whereby something that’s a little better than mainstream thought is actually kind of – dare I say it? – nice. I can be honestly happy about the little victories. Better than nothing, glass half full kind of thing. Frozen’s central true love story being about sisterly love and not ‘prince charming’, even though the necks of the two sisters were as wide as their waistline? I can appreciate that victory nonetheless.
I try to maintain this attitude in spite of knowing that society is pretty messed up because I would never want to fight judgment from the world with judgment of the world. It just wouldn’t be an effective battle. My husband always says some of the most closed-minded people he met in his life were hippies trying to impose their views on others. And I take that kind of thing to heart. Change takes time. And sometimes cultural paradigms shift for the better, only to then have old shitty ideas temporarily gain traction again. So I remain alert to bullshit, but I try to never lose sight of the fact that small changes, like the pop feminism that has female actresses questioning why they need to be scrutinized about their appearance so much all the time. That’s a form of resistance that does have an effect on the bigger picture. No matter how minute, no matter how much it is possibly a strategy for popularity among an increasingly critical mass, I can be truly happy that such a ‘critical mass’ even exists at all. The fact is that we’re now seeing discussions about gender, race and sexuality in spaces that were previously very oppressive. I could have been freed from bullshit much earlier in life if the world was in my childhood how it is now – and can I just say how much I love the internet for that?
But of course I know that these baby steps aren’t anywhere near enough. It’d be patronizing to people’s very real struggles if we could all call it quits on fighting sexism and racism simply because some Hollywood celebrity refused to put her hand in the ‘manicure cam’ at the Grammy’s, or because of the world’s outrage over bigoted CEOs. But these are wins nonetheless. The good kind. As much trolling as there is out there – see 90% of all internet comments – there has never been a tougher time to be a backwards, racist, sexist, homophobic bigot. And that is a huge thing for democracy. The people have spoken and they are questioning your crap! En masse. It remains very important to continue to think critically and question people’s motives and all that jazz, but for goodness’ sake, can being ‘critical’ please stop meaning being cynical?
More exhausting than mindless zombies perpetuating stereotypes is all the people who only add negativity to every discussion. Yes, by all means, be as fucking critical as you can. But if you nitpick at every single cultural manifestation that isn’t up to your fucking standards, how is the world ever going to take more pressing issues seriously? Last year a picture of the royal baby was plastered all over the internet claiming it had been Photoshopped by some tabloid, only when you actually clicked the link it was simply color-corrected.
Picture A of the royal baby looked like it was taken by me on my crappy old iPhone on a grey Tuesday. Meanwhile, Picture B of the royal baby looked publishable. There is such a thing as aesthetics, you know? Who would buy a magazine with dull-as poor quality photos? This kind of attitude borders on censorship and is so detrimental to real struggles! When a model who is absolutely gorgeous with 3% body fat gets Photoshopped to look skinnier, or when the only average-sized woman of color to make it to a given magazine’s cover that year is also the only one who only gets a close-up shot of her face instead of a full-body picture, please, world, critique it. Tear that shit apart! But when a photographer does his/her job, spare us the time and embarrassment of calling it social critique. It’s just not.
I see intelligent people commenting online sometimes, with all of this self-professed importance and cynicism about anything that isn’t ideal and I think to myself: please universe, won’t you save me from becoming a cynical, nitpicking know-it-all too? It’s a slippery slope that makes it very easy for us all to be ignored. It’s all just white noise after a while. I say it’s time we start thinking very critically at how and when to critique things. Pick your battles and all that.
Let’s say you think to yourself: oh, wow, this article is nice but lacking information about different perspectives. Instead of tearing it apart about all the things it doesn’t address and considering its political agenda as well as some unquestionable malice behind it, stop and use that same critical thinking to reverse your cynicism. Step back and you may find that you can still enjoy something designed to trigger the thoughts of people who have never thought about these issues before. Or perhaps even appreciate that someone has managed to make a complex topic actually accessible to the masses. While you acknowledge its clearly imperfect attempt, you count it as a move in the right direction and remember they didn’t have a full-feature documentary, a lengthy New Yorker piece, or an 8,000 word article in a peer-reviewed journal to address all of its facets. Is that really so hard?
Skepticism is wonderful and so very powerful. Perhaps even the most powerful tool we get to have as individuals. But like many things in life, I really believe it loses effectiveness if over-used. With this mind, I invite you to try to focus your revolt.
Because imagine how just how powerful that criticism could be if it didn’t fall into the abyss of white noise that has become the complaints of intelligent skeptics regarding every single facet of cultural life. We may even manage to change the world.