Dismissing the critic: Seven fallacious arguments against criticism

criticAs digital technology offers countless contrarian voices the opportunity to add their share to the din of popular culture, I thought I’d take a moment to look at the difference between a valid objection and a foolish remark that ought to be dismissed outright. Within the democratised digital world, it is a potentially demoralising reality (especially for the critic) that the latter is far more common. Thus do I present, in no particular order, the top seven categories of erroneous statement intended to silence dissent and the expression of critical opinion in the digital world: 

“Let’s see your movie/book/equivalent artistic product. Oh, that’s right, you’ve never directed/written/created one.”

A false appeal to accomplishment and ridiculous tu quoque argument. The function of the critic is not to appeal to authority so as to win an argument on the basis of experience. Moreover, the corollary does not hold true: having directed a film does not arbitrarily make one adept or even qualified to criticise a film. The tools of the critic are of an entirely different set than that of the filmmaker, though often they will borrow from one another. Essentially then, this argument is a non-sequitur, it makes no difference whatsoever whether the critic has made a film or not. Moreover, the homology would require the commenter to supply their own comparable criticism to legitimate his or her right to offer a reproach.

“Seriously, it’s just a movie/book/equivalent artistic product.”

A half-hearted attempt at an argument ad absurdum. In some instances this declaration may be valid, but as always, it depends on the context. It may be foolhardy and/or nonsensical to criticise a movie starring Kellan Lutz for not having a more intelligent or intricate story, since one is antithetical to the other, but arguably valid to impeach a veteran like Ridley Scott for any number of his films over the past decade. More than this, the criticism of an individual cinematic work, however trivial that work may be, may well sit within a broader critique of the cinematic form as a whole. For example, criticising The Legend of Hercules (2014) for being derivative hackwork may well be tackling a broader problem in cinema than a single mediocre film.

“Who the hell cares?”

Sarcastic, hyperbolic, hasty generalisation. Anyone who cares enough to type out a response admonishing someone for caring enough about something to type out an equally withering reproach about a film is evidently guilty of the same crime and wholly ignorant of irony.

critic“That movie/book/equivalent artistic product is so old, who cares?”

Much like the fallacy above, this argument ad nauseum attempts to silence the opinion by declaring it not worth having. The criticism is not a time-sensitive matter. If the film no longer occupies a prominent position in the cultural zeitgeist all that entails is the reduction of the criticisms , and not its validity. This attack also foolishly underestimates the importance of cultural products in the matrix of culture. For these people, culture is always and only ever the immanent here and now, defined in version updates and model numbers. For them life will only ever be the few scraps of insight they ever manage to grasp fluttering by, unaware of the vast field of knowledge that lays all around them.

“If that movie/book/equivalent artistic product wasn’t good, it would not have made X number of dollars.”

Argument ad populum. Just because a work is popular does not mean it is without flaws, or indeed, beyond criticism. Given the unprecedented success of the Twilight franchise I’m still consistently surprised whenever this argument gets thrown down.

“It’s just a movie, get a life!”

Borderline ad hominem. I think at this point in our culture, any individual who offers the unsolicited opinion that works of cinema are to be considered with the same enthusiasm as a used condom, and should be similarly disposed of as such, is the one who’s out of touch with what most people would describe as a life. That, or with one insult the commenter has undone the entire field of cinema studies.

its_only_a_movie “Opinions are like [name your suggestive body part], everybody’s got one.”

Thought-terminating cliché intended to pass as wisdom, when in fact the false equivocation is rhetorically null. If opinions are as common as body parts, then they are unavoidable. Moreover, if they are so common, they must then be unspectacular. However, the very fact that the respondent chose to utter this remark about this specific opinion designates a unique quality about this opinion which compelled the response. In the same way that we don’t respond or even register every body part of every person, we do notice and indeed even sometimes venture an opinion on remarkable features (whether desirable or undesirable). So, by calling that particular statement worthless, the attacker has ironically designated it as an opinion of some worth. However, the remark is so vague as to lack all causal referents, i.e. the statement does not respond to the opinion in question, except to acknowledge that opinions are common and unavoidable. Thus the greater irony of the statement is that it contains in embryo its own refutation.

 About the Author

A grad student scribbling his English Literature thesis lento in-between clandestine snorts of cinema and rebarbative bursts of balladry, Jason Lajoie also chews the celluloid cud over at Digital Didascalia when time permits.

9 thoughts on “Dismissing the critic: Seven fallacious arguments against criticism

  1. When it comes to critics, I think it’s a case of a man being a critic when he can’t be an artist in the same way a man is an informant when he can’t be a good soldier.

  2. Well put, Jason. I would only add that for a popular art form like movies or music to really flourish it needs to feed three ways between creators, audience and those who comment on it. Because of the Internet, those last two categories are easily combined which leads to a lot of static along with great sites like this. Craft is just as important as opinion, otherwise it’s just yelling instead of employing writing skills to enlighten and have a dialogue.

  3. There is nothing more annoying than the “it’s just a movie” statement. Sure, it’s just a movie, but some people actually view movies for other reasons than to be merely entertained for two hours. Some people go to film to learn, just like they would reading a book.

    When the world decided to dismiss the critical eye, the world is in a bad state (we may already be there).

    Great dissection.

  4. I was discussing this with a friend today. As they said in “Jay and Silent Bob Srtike Back”, “The Internet is basically a giant portal for people to talk about movies”. But that talking often turns to ridiculous arguements, belittling and insulting. Usually because of a disgreement about the merits of a particular film, or even a slight aspect of it. The fact the majority of these comments tend to start with “I’ is something this “fan boy” audience seems to forget the simplicity of. It’s an opinion. It may not be yours, but it’s an opinion. Not something worthy of getting violently angry about. Still, the electronic curtain the Internet provides allows everyone to be a critic and thus everyone to devalue the brand and thus everyone to spew misguided, uncalled for anger and spite. Tell you what…take the folliwng quote, post it anywhere…in any forum…on Ain’t It Cool News…and see how actual film criticism is non-existent in a world of young men (primarily) whose opinions are entirely their own and whose ire is inanely overwrought: “Hey…Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” was not THAT bad…”…

  5. For critical discourse to flourish at the populist level, there needs be a stimulus on the professional level. I remember the day Apocalypse Now opened. The first thing we did was read the anticipated reviews in the morning paper. Then we took the bus downtown to see the first screening of the day. After seeing the movie, we argued for and against the reviewer’s points, and made observations of our own. We must have kept talking about and re-seeing that picture for the rest of the year at least, all the time reading reviews and articles about it in the weeklies and monthlies. We were not critics, but the level of our conversations about the picture were higher because of the stimulation of the intellectual presence in the media on the film. If a culture dispossesses its intellectuals, it loses its focus. All that might have become part of a lasting history is degraded to the dull stimulus of passing entertainments. There are many worthy movies being made today, but virtually nobody to single them out from the morass of mediocrity that floods todays market, but would never have seen a release in times when a critical standard existed.

  6. The elimination of the critical voice has been a long process initiated by the publicity agents who can now control the popular reception of most movies. To allow a situation in which a low-paid writer could have such an impact on the box-office value of such an expensive product has long been intolerable to those whose job is to perpetuate positive propaganda. Most of the critics still employed by the few existing publications are the most compliant yes men of the dwindling reviewing community. The critic is no longer an independent voice dedicating to giving the consumer a fair assessment of the movies, but an extension of the publicity machine designed to increase the financial returns on what is more and more often an inferior product. These fanboys differ from old-school critics in many regards. First, they choose the movies they review, which not only predisposes them to each a positive review but limits their knowledge of the overall product, thus making it impossible to deliver a fair marketplace assessment of any given product. As a critic for a daily newspaper for ten years, i saw an average of 700 movies a year. I went to the screening room on the average of three times a week, arriving at 10 and sometimes not getting out until 4pm. i looked forward to seeing very few of thesemovies, but it was my job to dutifully stay awake and assess them, then go home and attempt to write something accurate and worthwhile for the general public. Although my rating on rotten tomatoes put me among those critics who gave more positive than negative reviews, my reputation among publicists was that of a hard ass maverick who didnt care who he offended (or how much money my opinion cost the studios). The truth is that the format of the newspaper review left very little room for the critic to pontificate on his own opinion. The what, where, when, how,and why of it all was more important to the reader than whether i had personally enjoyed the ‘ride.” I gave favorable reviews to movies that were not to my taste and negative reviews to movies that I had a predisposition toward. This was not the case with most reviewers, one of whom confided to me that he would give a bad review to a movie that he knew was good, if it wasnt to his personal taste. Such reviewers have always been a plague to serious criticism, and now they are apparently the last ones standing. Kudos to James for keeping the practice of serious criticism and film commentary alive, and to Jason for reminding us that of the importance of such writing.

  7. Thanks for an interesting article Jason, and an accomplished de-bunking of many popular critical ‘tools’ used on blogs. Luckily, James does not seem to attract those thoughtless kinds of people, here at Curnblog.
    Regards from England, Pete.

Leave a Reply