Hate as an element of style
Great observation by Steve Sailer (emphasis below mine):
I don’t have outstanding taste because I’m not a good hater. I see most glasses as part full. For example, I’ve always wanted to have outstanding taste in golf course architecture, but I like golf courses too much. I look at a mediocre golf course and say, “Hey, it’s better than a strip mall!” Then, like most people, I tend to grow attached to the familiar and become accepting of its flaws. It’s a more pleasant way to go through life, but the tradeoff is that you probably won’t browbeat a giant staff into performing wonders
He’s referring to Steve Jobs in that last line. In the realm of aesthetics, Jobs was a terrific hater — and note well that by “hater,” he’s talking about someone who has strong views, and invests those views with emotional force.
I never really thought about it before reading Sailer’s remark, but the people I’ve known who have had strong senses of style — especially gay men — have all been good haters. I don’t mean they were unpleasant people, not at all (though some were). I mean that they had strong opinions, and were usually extremely good at defining what they hated, and smiting it, banishing it, or decreeing that it was Totally Unacceptable. This is often off-putting, for obvious reasons, and the usual reaction people have to it is to hate right back: to declare that the aesthetic hater is some sort of “snob” — an accusation that may, in fact, be exactly right, and usually is.
And yet, thank goodness for aesthetic snobs. The alternative is mediocrity, is ugliness. You want Palestrina, or you want Marty Haugen? You want Titian, or you want Thomas Kinkade? In my own aesthetic life, you will find mostly middlebrow mediocrity, I’d guess, but I’m always trying to learn from people with good taste, and to incorporate those lessons into the way I live. Many people mistakenly assume that taste is completely arbitrary, and solely an expression of social values. That’s not true. There are reasons why this film (or painting, or building, or dish) is pleasing to the senses, and why that one is not. If one’s aesthetic sense has been educated through instruction and experience, then one understands the criteria of evaluation. Eventually, if one sticks with it, one can start to discern why the people one might have written off as snobs arrive at the opinion they do about a certain thing; having come to understand that, one may share their opinion. Or maybe not. One does not become a person of taste by mindlessly aping what tastemakers tell them to do and to love.
Take, for example, the matter of wine. When I first started drinking wine, I preferred sweetish fruit bombs. I didn’t understand why wine connoisseurs preferred very dry wines, like Bordeaux. I figured there must be something about those wines that I just didn’t get, and that I may one day get. I bought the wines I enjoyed, and I don’t think there was anything wrong with that. But I kept tasting the more dry wines, trying to tease out what about them was so prized by people who really knew wine. Over time, my taste changed, and I came to prefer the subtleties of structure in these prized wines. I not only got why they’re so loved by connoisseurs, but I began to enjoy those same qualities myself, and not to enjoy the wines I started out loving (at least not as much as I once did). Now, I would never condemn someone who preferred the simpler style of wine — I am not a good hater about these things — but I would invite them to keep an open mind about wine styles that aren’t immediately appealing. There is something to be learned there. Same deal with beer, I find.
The problem is when people confuse aesthetics with morals, on both sides of the equation. People with outstanding taste often assume, quite unjustly, that those without taste are morally flawed. Teenagers are the world’s worst about this. When I was in high school, the kids who liked THAT kind of music not only had bad taste, but were probably bad people too. It was stupid, but most of us did it. Didn’t you? We moralized questions of taste constantly. It’s juvenile, but even in adulthood, the tasteful and the tasteless still do it. Plus, it’s hard to know how much questions of taste are wholly conditioned by social context. In his new book about food, Adam Gopnik observes that in an earlier era, a sign of elite taste was the preference for eating food out of season; only peasants restricted their diets to what was in season, therefore locally available. Now, things have completely flip-flopped. The locavores and in-season-only eaters have good moral reasons for their own preferences — I share most of them — but sometimes don’t have a sufficient sense of when to stop moralizing preferences. I mean, the production and consumption of food is unavoidably a moral act, but the line between what is moral and what is merely aesthetic is unclear.
Anyway, to return to the original point, Steve Sailer is onto something when he observes the connection between the ability to hate well, and good taste. It comes from perfectionism, from chronic dissatisfaction. I used to be a film critic. I don’t think I was great at it, but I wasn’t bad. I quit doing it when my first child was born, a year and a half into marriage (the job change was just a coincidence). I think about how blistering and nasty and entertaining my movie reviews used to be, and how I could no more write like that today than fly to the moon. It’s not because I’ve become a better person (though I hope I have), but because I’ve become a much happier and more satisfied person. I remember my worried mother saying to me once as a child, “Why are you so critical of everything?” I didn’t know what to say to her then, but the truth is I was so critical of everything because I was so critical of myself. If I was a good hater when I was younger, it’s because the first object of my hatred was myself, in all my imperfections. It’s why I drove myself to achieve, and turned on myself viciously when I failed. It’s also, I think, why I had little patience for the failures and mediocrities of others in the films I wrote about.
Marriage and parenthood changed all that for me. I don’t know that it destroyed my taste in movies, but it did make me less eager to hate aesthetic failure. Not incapable of it, mind you, but I just don’t have strong aesthetic opinions like I used to, or at least I don’t feel the need to assert them as strongly. Then again, I fear that I tolerate mediocrity in myself to a degree that a younger me would have recoiled from. But, whatever. Life is long and hard, and endurance, to say nothing of thriving, requires mercy, even at the cost of excellence.
You do realize, of course, that all this is an elaborate rationalization for the fact that I’m about two years away from buying my first pair of Dockers.
UPDATE: As I just posted in the comments section, I’ve only been around two critics in my life who were both at the top of their game intellectually, but who were also thoroughly and genuinely charming: Clive James and Bill Buckley. Buckley wasn’t a critic per se, but he was in the business of professionally criticizing. Neither man was remotely a hater. So it can be done.