Condescending Cultural Critique


When we evaluate movies, TV shows, and other media products that are intended to be seen by a large, mass audience, we often take two positions at the same time:

  • What I really think of this
  • What will Someone Else think of this?
    (where Someone Else is a social demographic
    different from your own)

We see this phenomenon in culture, in business, religion, in product/user interface design, and of course in politics, where we think that there are some ideas that are good for a more educated, sophisticated, and egalitarian elite, while those same ideas can be dangerous and misleading for the unwashed masses of Someone Elses out there.

A recent example is the USPS Hattie McDaniel postage stamp. McDaniel is most remembered for playing Mammy in Gone with the Wind, a role for which she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. She was the first — and for a great many years the only — African American person to win an Oscar.

The very mention of her name, however, brings up mixed feelings among many African Americans: On the one hand, she was a pioneer in getting black actors into Hollywood movies, where for many years the very presence of a single black person in a film was considered box-office death (for example, many studios would remove all scenes with black people for distribution in the South). On the other hand, almost without exception the roles McDaniel played were simple-minded household servants and slaves — hardly roles that represented African American aspirations. McDaniel’s admirers argue that in the history between not appearing in movies at all and today’s near-equality in casting, degrading and stereotypical roles were the only options available for actors like McDaniel.

The Danger of Praising Stereotypes

Some think that giving public recognition to McDaniel is wrong, that it “sends a bad message”. In a frank radio essay, NPR’s News and Notes commentator Robin Washington said that while he understands that McDaniel may not have had a choice, and that there was some dignity in what she did, the average American would not. He appreciates the complexity of her situation, and he truly understands that McDaniel was a great person worthy of our respect. But at the same time, he feels that most Americans, black and white alike, will not understand that complexity, and will instead react to the stamp by reinforcing their own deeply-rooted racial stereotypes.

In short, he says that only academic cultural critics and historians are really qualified to appreciate the cultural importance of McDaniel and her accomplishments. Apparently, some people can handle this and some people can’t. Appreciating Hattie McDaniel is good for you and me, and of course it was good for Hattie McDaniel herself, but this same appreciation is apparently bad for Someone Else.

Assuming the Worst

This is what I mean by “condescending cultural critique”, and we see it all the time. Think about all of the non-politically-correct comedians and sitcoms you’ve ever seen. Assuming that you’re not a racist yourself, have you ever thought about how how people other than yourself might react to the jokes? Do you assume the worst of some of them, that there may be Someone Else out there whose hateful stereotypes are reinforced by the same jokes that you are laughing at without malice?

The recent discussions over 37signals’ Getting Real book had a similar tone: Many agree that the advice in the book is good for those few very clever software developers who can handle it, but for the vast majority of technology workers and managers, the book (according to some critics) would do more harm than good because most people (again, according to some critics) are incapable of understanding the concept’s nuances and may instead shoot themselves in the foot with their hamfisted implementations of the advice contained within. They say the book is “dangerous“. Not for them, of course, but for Someone Else.

I had, and in a way still have, this sort of relationship with Starship Troopers. I didn’t want to see this movie for many years, presuming that it was just another stupid Hollywood glorification of fascist violence. I finally saw it and I loved it — it is, in fact, a hilarious and bitter satire of Hollywood’s glorification of fascist violence. But Verhoeven, being the cheesebag that he is, came so close to the line between satire and becoming-that-which- you-are-satirizing that it’s easy to imagine that most people watching the movie might not “get” the satire part of the equation. They might come away from the movie with their own xenophobia and distrust of those who question the government reinforced. But who are these people? It’s not me and my friends. They’re Someone Else entirely.

So what do you do when you know that something is good for you and your smart, politically-aware and socially just circle of friends and colleagues, but you suspect that it may be bad for Someone Else? Do you suppress your praise of such works so that they don’t reach a wider audience where they might be dangerously misinterpreted? I don’t think so. Such an attitude is condescending, and condescension is intellectually unethical. It’s good to be aware of how others might react to something, and it’s impossible to avoid being conscious of all the Someone Elses out there, but this should not stop you from saying how you personally feel about something. In fact, it might be an opportunity to change someone’s mind, to enlighten another person.

There is a Someone Else mindset inherent to user interface design, too. I’ll address that another day.


3 responses to “Condescending Cultural Critique”

  1. Starship Troopers = one of the most entertaining satires ever

    I’ve gotten into many discussions over the years about this film, from the day it was released ’til now.

    IMHO, it goes beyond even being a question of ‘becoming what you satirize.’ My arg is that it IS what it satirizes. That’s its stunning brilliance. It exists as a big budget action flick and a satire of the same *at the same time.* It’s in some crazy quantum cultural state.

  2. Very interesting, and you’re right about “condescending cultural critique”. I would also add that whether we want to be our not, everyone is influenced at least a little by opinions they read or hear, even if the influence is so small as to not be noticed except over time from repeated exposure and “chipping away” at their thoughts. This is how prosletyzing works, and the secret that makes the Socratic method of persuasion work.

    Also, having read the novel and seen the movie twice, I wanted to put in my $0.02 about Starship Troopers. I’m beginning to suspect it may be one of the most misunderstood movies to come out of Hollywood in decades.

    The way the book was written was styled after WWII “fighting the good fight” propaganda used in posters and radio by the United States, and even the movie touches on that same style. Being a history buff, I spotted this immediately, but few other people seem to have noticed. (Time Out in London made the same statement as you in a review.)

    I guess, to modern eyes, the way they did propaganda back then looks too much like totalitarianism. Considering North Korea still does propaganda the same way even now, it makes sense.

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