If Everything Is Just Entertainment, Then All Tastes Are Equally Valuable, Right?

Thoughtful critics seem to confront this problem frequently:

“There are times I really like something that’s utterly thoughtless and mind-numbing. So when I put down something else as thoughtless and mind-numbing, am I being a hypocrite?”

We can identify other variants of this:

  • “You like to read, I like to party. Same thing if your reading doesn’t make money or produce anything practical.”
  • “There aren’t any prerequisites to putting forth your opinion. What matters is that you voice your opinion, no matter how dumb it is, because if you don’t speak you don’t get a say.”
  • “So-and-so can’t possibly be as deep as you make him out to be, because his words strike me as direct only.” (This argument can be complemented with “I know him to be of such a character/defined by incident X etc.)

The problem, most generally put, is how one opinion can be better than another when the knowledge involved isn’t empirical. We only “know” when things are testable or logically necessary. All other “knowledge” rests in the realm of opinion, and the main reason why people have opinions, other than to voice demonstrable needs, is to ground a pride that makes life easier alone as well as enjoy oneself with others in conversation.

Are all opinions not grounded in something empirical or clearly demonstrable a form of entertainment?

The argument that they are is a narrower version of Aristotle’s point that “all men desire happiness.” Happiness in the case we’re considering is equated with pleasure and fulfillment of passions. Because that claim is narrower, the burden of proof is on it more than those of us arguing with it.

We can see the increased burden of proof manifest itself when we let the claim slide a little bit. Let us assume all opinions are just a matter of entertainment.

So what truly entertains us?

It looks like, strangely enough, that things we can learn from entertain us at a very high level. After all, if something really entertains, it educates us without us knowing it. We memorize lyrics to songs we like and even take the messages in them seriously. We memorize lines from movies and employ them to strong effect in other situations, for better or worse.

Entertainment isn’t “just” entertainment, meant to be forgotten. In order for it to amuse or relieve us of sadness, we need to retain it for just a bit of time. (Note that even the game of throwing a ball against a wall and catching it requires enough focus that there’s a minimum standard of concentration for playing it.)

Once the move is made that opinions might only concern entertainment, but entertainment depends on learning, the relativism behind “should I feel guilty for having taste” falls apart. There’s already an implicit hierarchy at play, and people who want to attack others for being snobby are actually endorsing a hierarchy of their own, but using character assassination to make their argument instead of elaborating on what the consequences of their tastes are.

And tastes do have consequences. I don’t know that violent games and movies make us more violent. But I do know that Anti-Semitic conspiracy theory has flourished for years among many who should know better, because prejudices haven’t been taken seriously enough. Some people today say that prejudices are a matter of taste and can’t be openly attacked and destroyed. I think it’s pretty clear what I think of that opinion, and that it is even clearer my opinion, however flawed, has import beyond entertainment purposes only.

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  1. I sort of agree with you- though I do think there is a role for taste. For example I don’t enjoy watching ballet- its nothing to do with the intrinsic qualities of ballet, its just it doesn’t move me as much as a good film. But yes I do think as well there is ‘good’ art and literature.

  2. I think once one has a notion that there is a hierarchy of tastes, it’s easier to say “hey, not liking such and such is fine.”

    Ironically enough, not saying “tastes matter” results in 1) anyone can like/hate anything, or 2) everyone has to like/hate something and there is no debate.

    A really good example of the latter are people who are obsessive about political correctness. We wonder why they can be so pushy and not notice it. I wonder if it’s because they see the same principle driving their intolerance that most of us who are “live and let live” allow to drive our tolerance.

    Where taste matters, thoughts can be debated to a degree, or seen as inhuman and assessed appropriately When it doesn’t matter, then it is possible to say that ballet is absolutely good or absolutely unnecessary, both at once, and for your opinion to count for nothing.

    btw, see Romeo and Juliet by Prokofiev if you can – that ballet is absolutely worth it.

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