I don't know if you know this, but there's a movie hitting theaters that has the Internet in a fresh tizzy. Hint: its name has a color and a number in the name. If my Twitter feed is any indication, then most every magazine, website, and blog that generally weighs in on the tizzy of the week is duly weighing in on this one, too. Should people see it? Should people care?
The more morally-bound the magazine—for religious, political, or ideological reasons—the more grave the admonition. (And the less likely that the writer has watched or listened to the item in question.)
Surely there are interesting points to be made about things like gender, sexuality, violence, abuse, preference, consent, ideology, religion, and more—not to mention literature and film. So don't see what I'm about to say as a de facto criticism of the film or those who have written about it. I haven't read the books or seen the movie, and probably never will do either. I want to make a broader point here.
Point of order: no, we won't be running a review, as the film has no real cogent moral or cultural point buried within. Other people have written about most of the larger cultural issues for a long time, so I believe there's nothing to be gained by rehashing them. And by most reports, it's a terribly written book made into a mediocre film, and look: frankly, life is too short.
I've grown increasingly irritated with the topic's treatment—especially, unfortunately, in Christian publications—over the past few weeks. As a film critic working in a religious context, I'm not easily ruffled by the Internet anymore, so I stepped back for a while today to figure out why I was irritated. I've come to some opinions, and critics are paid to write down their opinions, so here you go.
The “hot take” has become a genre unto itself in the last few years, as technology makes quickly publishing one's opinion easier. Alyssa Rosenberg, who blogs on politics and pop culture at The Washington Post, tweeted about this earlier today, asking what makes for a hot take. I don't know what Alyssa thinks (yet), and I don't think of her as a hot-taker at all, but most of her respondents, including me, characterized it as having two elements: (1) a weak, quickly-made argument that is (2) written basically to garner lots of traffic. (Traffic, if you don't know, is how a lot of us who write for the Internet pay our rent, or in my case, about a sixth of our rent.)
The latter part almost makes sense—after all, I'm blogging about this right now, and most of you know what movie I'm writing about, and it doesn't even come out till right now, this Friday, and a girl's gotta pay the rent somehow. (You'll note the nod to this fact in the image that heads this article.)
But the former part is what disturbs me: hastily-made arguments. In my reading, I've seen a few of these—arguments that fall prey to what seem like obvious fallacies. For instance, I've seen arguments against seeing the movies that posture as contrarian because “everyone is saying” that people, even Christians, ought to see the film (I've yet to see someone suggest that), or that “everyone thinks it is fine” (demonstrably untrue, across the ideological spectrum), or “does nobody see the problem here” (actually lots of people do, from religious folks to feminists to people who like carefully-made books and movies).
The trick to writing on the Internet and getting heard is making a very loud, very extreme argument. The Internet does not reward nuanced takes or people who wait a week and a half to think something through, and the Internet especially does not reward people who say, You know? I'm not sure I've figured out what I think on this yet.
At several of the most formative moments in my life, I encountered three philosophers whom I greatly admire. All three of them are Christians, as it happens; all three also are colleagues and friends of one another, and they all prompted a revolution in the field of academic philosophy, which I peer into every so often from my perch way out on the edges. Those men are Nicholas Wolterstorff, Alvin Plantinga, and Richard Mouw.
In three separate settings, on three separate occasions, I heard people ask these men questions in public settings—events they won't even recall, but that made a great impression on me. Each time, the questioner asked something relatively benign (so benign, I don't remember what the question even was). Each time, the eminent philosopher, a leader in his field, an authority and well on his way to being a sort of legend, responded the same way: “You know, I haven't thought that through yet. So I'm not sure what I think.”
I was knocked flat every time. And I've never heard it elsewhere.
Undoubtedly, there is value to being able to form quick opinions on things. If you're a movie critic, it's a requirement of the job; often we see movies 24-48 hours before the review has to run. I can come up with something to say before I leave the theater.
But there are things that require slow opinions. Sometimes, they're very slow opinions. Sometimes they need to be revised over time, and sometimes they take decades to form.
I, for one, feel this keenly. I need time to think and revise my thoughts. I want to be able to consult other people, other voices. I'm lucky to have brilliant colleagues and friends whom I consult regularly for their opinions and knowledge, and I need time to assimilate those ideas. As a pretty young critic (I turned 31 a few months ago), and one who doesn't devote all her time to thinking about films and TV shows and books but also has to grade papers and feed social media machines and correct writers' commas and do some tech writing on the side to pay the bills, I can't form some opinions quickly.
The good thing about forming opinions slowly, and then bouncing them off people who routinely disagree with you and aren't afraid to say so—which describes most of my closest friends—is that when you are finally ready to write or say something, you can be more certain of it, because you've got a leg to stand on.
It seems to me that in our age of hot takes, of people having to have an opinion on every issue that comes down the pipeline, fallacies are easy ditches into which we can swerve: straw men help us sound innovative; ad hoc and ad hominem attacks make us sound like we have the moral high ground; quick bandwagon or slippery slope arguments make us seem to be prophetic when in fact we're just repeating the same things people have always been saying.
At CT Movies, we're trying very hard not to be loud, shrill, or prone to logical fallacies that make things seem either better or more dire than they actually are. As a result we're not the most interesting source to read on the Internet. But listening to Wolterstorff and Plantinga and Mouw, I saw men who had spent a lifetime thinking carefully, because they had learned a thing or two about what it looks like to be wise. All are late in their careers, when they could easily make pronouncements that people would take seriously. In other words, any of them could coast, or be shrill and hit the headlines.
But instead, they choose to be honest: “I don't know what I think yet.” I plan to frame that and hang it on the wall over my computer, because I am too easily rewarded for a quick, loud, daring take. Less web traffic lies that way, I guess, but also the way of wisdom.