Gatekeeping Criticism

Mpepper/ October 27, 2023/ Think Pieces

Not all opinions are made equal.

Everyone is entitled to one, of course, and now that pretty much everyone in the world has a public platform via social media, everyone is able to broadcast their opinions to the populace. In many ways, this is a good thing. Hearing various points of view, getting different “readings” on a text (as we in media studies call books, TV shows, and films), seeing through diverse lenses—these are worthwhile opportunities. But with low-to-no barrier to entry, every opinion comes across as weighted equally, when they really shouldn’t be.

As an author, when getting feedback from critique partners and beta readers, I must always take into account any biases the readers may have. I also consider their strengths and backgrounds. Certainly, I choose my critique partners and beta readers for exactly those reasons; I wouldn’t hand my manuscript to a random person on the street and ask them to evaluate it. I mean, I could, but why would I? Why should I value that person’s opinion without at least knowing they have the qualifications to support said criticism?

A big part of the anger in the world these days, I think, is that everyone wants to be heard and taken seriously. They want their opinions acknowledged and valued. And they think this is an inherent right, but it really isn’t. I don’t value the man on the street’s medical advice over that of my doctor’s, and I have no reason to prioritize Random Guy’s assessment of Latest Blockbuster Movie, either. RG is absolutely entitled to have his opinion, to film it for TikTok or whatever, but I also am within my rights to ignore and/or disagree with it.

The real problem is that most of these voices don’t add anything to the discussion. They just want to shout loud and be heard, but they have little substance beyond general screaming. Back in the day (because I’m old), you found reviewers whose tastes seemed to align with yours, and so you trusted them when they did or didn’t like something. A different critic might have an alternate opinion, and it could be interesting to read their counterarguments, but you had an idea of whose judgements agreed with yours in general. You were Team Siskel or Team Ebert or whatever. That can still happen now, but wading through the sheer number of reviews—the teems of people casting their thoughts into the cultural whirlpool—can make it difficult to find anyone worth allying with. Most people air their opinions without having the education to back them up. And I’m not saying you need to have a fancy degree, only that you need to have some actual insight. Maybe read some actual criticism before throwing yours out there.

I’ll be accused of intellectual elitism for that, but while art is subjective in ways that health and science are not, there are still some people better equipped to evaluate art than others. Art scholarship is a thing, and those scholars deserve credit for what they do and to be weighted accordingly in discussions of art and media. There is a reason major awards are given from a pool of those scholars and industry insiders, and those awards are generally held in higher regard than, say, People’s Choice or other popularity contest awards. There is a reason Random Guy is not asked to sit on panels at film festivals.

It’s a complicated system, since of course these creators want their works to be popular. Popular things make money, after all. But when all voices are considered equal, none of them matter. So we must have some way of evaluating which people to listen to, which voices do matter, and under what circumstances. And that is largely a personal thing—deciding who to listen to and trust. Because not all opinions are made equal, but every person has their own scale on which they will place your criticisms and weigh them against their particular values.

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