Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Subjectivity of Taste

Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon has an interest post up about guilty pleasures.  As she points out, we can't have guilty pleasures unless we have rules around what we believe is acceptably pleasurable.  We can figure out our own rules (often obliquely concealed from us) by looking at what we believe doesn't fit.  The question becomes, "What are you slightly embarrassed to admit enjoying?"

She and others focus on music, books, TV shows, and films.  I don't actually have any that I feel awkward about, so it would appear that I have no rules around them.  I have preferences, but no obvious prejudices.  My little one loves Justin Bieber.  I find the music monotonous and hard to listen to, but I don't think less of anyone for liking it, and I wouldn't hide it if I was a fan.  Shining a light on my CDs or films doesn't cause me to cringe even when people make fun of some of the selections.  They're just acting superior.  There's nothing wrong with liking the Three Stooges.  Or Sarah McLachlin for that matter.  The Bay City Rollers had their day, and so did Nicholas Cage.

But I do have a guilty pleasure beyond those categories: I love doing Sudokus.  I think doing a crossword puzzle is laudable because it requires at least a knowledge base, but the Sudoku is somehow less than.  I relish them daily, racing to beat my last time like Algernon.  I think I look down at this practice because there's no educational nor aesthetic value at all.  We can dance to Justin Bieber, but I don't frame my completed puzzles.  And recent studies suggest they have no value in postponing Alzheimer's either.  A daily jog does a better job of that.  It's just a silly little process-of-elimination puzzle.

The exercise of discerning guilty pleasures is really a means of finding our own prejudices.  Mine, apparently, are towards people who are content with unaesthetic, non-educational toys.  If I got any pleasure from video games, they might make the list too, although not the more complex ones with story lines.  But Tetris?  Tsk.   These games all are time sucks, and I limit my Sudoku-playing specifically so I don't lose a day to it.  But what would be wrong with that?  I think it's that work-ethic drilled in to me from a young age rearing its judgemental head.  And looked at from a different angle, perhaps they can be considered meditative.  If I'm trying to finish quickly, I can't allow myself to be distracted.  I have to be entirely present and engaged for the time it takes to fill in the last number.

But here I am, again, trying to find a usefulness for it.  It's not acceptable to me without a purpose.  That's a strong bias I've got going there.  Good to know.  Because it can be a bugger when someone insists their taste is THE taste, their bias is right.  Subjective analysis made to seem objectively determined, the only right answer, can lead to a very dark place.  And, at best, it's annoying.

And then I read a different article, by Daniel Hamermesh, considering the extent of discrimination against people with an attractiveness impairment and suggesting that maybe we should "offer legal protection to the ugly, as we do with racial, ethnic and religious minorities, women and handicapped individuals," including affirmative action programs, as this group of people makes significantly less money that the rest of us (or the rest of you).  The argument goes that people don't want to see ugly people, so they don't hire them or marry them, thus they are at a disadvantage. The article discusses studies that apparently prove we are all aware of who in our midst is ugly and that we generally discriminate against them.

I wonder if it's not a linear co-relation between looks and discrimination because I suspect very attractive people are also discriminated against to an extent.  We don't like the idea that someone can be beautiful and brilliant, so perhaps the lucky few don't get as many intellectual jobs as they should.  Something like that.  It's curious that I can picture an image of "very attractive" in my head based on people I know, but I don't really know what "ugly" means.  Different?  Asymmetrical?  Do people need a smooth face to allow for an area of restraint?  
I saw an interview with Charlize Theron where she said she hates when people tell her she was so brave to look so bad in Monster because that's just what she looks like without make-up.

But if it's the case that we determine people's attractiveness in an objective way, I don't think that translates to our taste in people being remotely objective.  Our desire for another is not the same as how we judge the attractiveness of a photograph.  Unfortunately on a job interview or on an on-line dating site, there might be more similarity because we're going on a first impression, but if we give it time, we can often be enticed by a gesture or a shared idea.  Our taste in people, our preference, is affected by more than a facade.  And when we get to know people, the beautiful can sometime become hideous, and the ugly, stunning.

Like this:

And it occurs to me that perceived unattractiveness could be similar to a disability in that, for overt disabilities, it could be a barrier to acceptance, but once we get to know people, the disability shifts to the background.

But if we accept "ugly" as a target for discrimination because the afflicted get fewer job offers, then do we also add a category for "socially awkward" (or anything else people are ostracized for)?  Neither might be first choice for a reception job.   We want to be the kind of people that rise above that judgemental place and are accepting of people regardless how they look, but I'm not sure we care to be as accepting of their behaviour.  That's a whole other ballgame.

Some cheesiness from my childhood:

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