ReelThoughts: March 24, 2008

"You Don't Agree with Me Enough!"

Commentary by James Berardinelli


Recently, as I was aimlessly surfing the net, moving from movie site to movie site, I stopped at one I infrequently visit and decided to spend some time peruse everything it has to offer. I discovered a "links" page that provides jumping-off points to just about every movie-related site imaginable except ReelViews. So, in what some will view as the height of arrogance, I sent the webmaster an e-mail wondering about the reason for my exclusion. His response surprised me a little. I guess I had been expecting him to write: "I don't like your writing" or "You're not a very good critic" or "I don't know who you are." What I got was: "You don't agree with me enough."

I wasn't offended by this, but it cause me to ponder a couple of things. First, the guy has a right to link to whatever sites he wants to link to. It's his site. He owes no one an explanation for including or omitting a link, especially not a nosy critic who sends him an unsolicited e-mail. Second, I think this explanation says something important about the society in which we exist today. We talk a lot about diversity, but how much do we really value it? If divergent opinions are valuable, why are we so quick to attack them or dismiss them? I know everyone isn't like this, but there's a growing sense of polarization, a "with us or against us" attitude that refuses compromise.

A "scorched earth" policy comes into play here. Why respectfully defeat an opponent when you can kick the living shit out of him? This is a mentality I find disturbing: the need to humiliate someone who disagrees. Many arguments are born out of conflicting opinions. An opinion - if it's truly an opinion - is neither right nor wrong. So why are so many people determined to "prove" that their opinion is "right"? It's not possible. Movie reviews are constructed on a foundation of opinions. You can agree with them or disagree with them or fall somewhere in between, but you can never prove them right or wrong. For every movie that I consider among the worst films made, there will be at least one person somewhere who genuinely cherishes it. The reverse is equally true. An easy example is August Rush, which I found almost physically painful to endure and ripped mercilessly in my review. I have received many e-mails since then from readers who disagree. The disagreement is not the point; it's the tone of the disagreement. Some of those e-mails were respectful; their writers provided thoughtful explanations of what worked for them. Some were defensive. And some were attacks. How insecure does one have to be in one's own opinion to attack someone who disagrees with it?

We see this in politics all the time. The right attacks the left; the left attacks the right. Maybe I'm hopelessly naive, but I seem to remember a time when Republicans and Democrats could actually get along, when "liberal" and "conservative" were mere descriptors, not bad words. Why is it so difficult in politics to respect an intelligent, thoughtful individual who holds a position different than one's own? Why does necessity determine that an attack is necessary? Don't we all live in glass houses? Is there anyone without a skeleton in a closet?

I occasionally listen to the likes of Rush Limbaugh on the radio when I'm in the car during the mid-day hours. I sometimes watch Keith Olbermann's show on MSNBC when I'm in front of the TV in the evening. These two are the North and South Poles of political magnets. Each displays intolerance for a position other than his own (which is why they have devoted followings). I disagree regularly with them both, but I find it informative to hear what they're saying in order to understand a position other than my own. It re-enforces my belief that you don't have to agree with an opinion to explore it. There are, of course, extremes to everything, but this column refers to reasonable opinions, not those that are morally repugnant. Limbaugh and Olbermann are provocative that's what they're paid for but neither is a hate-monger. We're not talking about Adolf Hitler here.

Often, when I finish writing a review, one of the first things I do is go to Rotten Tomatoes and seek out three contrary opinions. If I dislike a movie, I want to know what the film's defenders find laudable about it. If I like it, I want to hear from the detractors. This approach has never resulted in a shift in my opinion of a movie, but it has enabled me to discuss the film more intelligently. What troubles me is that some people are afraid of any opinion that contradicts their own. To hear something they don't agree with threatens them. I posted samples of hate mail last week that are amusing in a way, but they illustrate what I'm writing about today. Those e-mailers attacked instead of pondering and digesting what I had to say then attempting to enter into an intelligent discussion. I love engaging in civilized debates about movies (although the limited time I have to respond to each e-mail prevents me from doing this on a regular basis). After all, if everyone agreed on every movie, what would the point be of having critics?


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