The Huffington Post recently drew eye rolls with a tweet claiming that the beloved children’s TV classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was “seriously problematic.” The accompanying video pointed out all kinds of bigotry and abuse in the show—which, as responders were quick to point out, the show was not actually endorsing. Quite the reverse, in fact. The whole point of Rudolph, as most viewers know, is that in the end, difference is celebrated and bigots see the error of their ways.
But you can’t cause an uproar by just saying what people already know. And lately, causing an uproar seems to be a major goal, if not the major goal, of many who formulate and proclaim opinions for a living. From NPR’s Ira Glass dissing Shakespeare to the various debunkers of It’s a Wonderful Life, trolling cultural icons is a quick, easy, and regrettably popular way to attract eyes and clicks.
The Toronto Star actually dedicated an entire column, titled “The Heretic,” to trolling. The idea was to let the paper’s writers take turns sharing “a wildly unpopular opinion.” I found this out one day when I noticed that my timeline was full of angsty chatter about, of all things, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
I soon traced the angst to this Toronto Star article: “‘Ode to Joy’ has an odious history. Let’s give Beethoven’s most overplayed symphony a rest.” After glancing over the ideological and political history of the beloved piece, music writer John Terauds threw his bucket of cold water: “But from today’s perspective we know that unilateral calls to world brotherhood in joy have a flip side, which is tyranny. We appreciate now more than ever that joy is accessible to everyone only if some people are taking antidepressants.” Today, a 19th-century call for unity fails to take into account our greater diversity, and thus, he concluded, the symphony needed to be shelved until further notice.
It’s hard to imagine anyone coming up with a more trollish take on anything. (It’s strange, for instance, that a music writer has absolutely nothing to say about the musical value of the piece—that he wouldn’t, for instance, suggest just concentrating on that for a while, instead of dropping the symphony from the repertoire altogether.) But the Star kept trying. Ensuing “Heretic” columns dealt with such topics as Titanic (overrated, said that columnist) and some show about a doctor who goes by the moniker of “Dr. Pimple Popper” (possibly the best medical show on television, according to the columnist who covered it).
I didn’t disagree with all the columns; I’ve been saying since 1997 that Titanic is overrated. But “The Heretic” got me thinking about “unpopular opinions,” and the point of having a column just to share them. Does the value of an unpopular opinion lie solely in its lack of popularity?
To argue that it does is to head down a dangerous road. It’s to suggest that the thing that the opinion is about has no value in itself—that its value lies solely in the way people react to it. That’s an error that seems expressly designed for our social media age, which allows us to spend much of our day reacting—reacting so quickly and so frequently that the thing we’re reacting to can get lost in the shuffle.
Christians have a safeguard against this kind of thinking. When we quote Paul’s famous words to the Philippians—“whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things,” we’re arguing against that error. We’re saying that these things have truth, nobility, rightness, and so forth that is intrinsic to them, God-given qualities that make them worth our observation and admiration.
But we’re increasingly going against a cultural climate where it’s not whether you said something good or true or beautiful (or the reverse), or whether you drew someone’s attention to something good or true or beautiful (or the reverse), that’s important. It’s how many people you managed to offend or upset or “own” when you said it.
Douglas McLennan of ArtsJournal—which had tweeted out the Beethoven column and so faced its own share of the backlash—wrote, “The drug is in the hating. Beethoven is a cultural icon at the pinnacle of Western Civilization. He transcends music, a seemingly unassailable symbol of achievement in all of human history. It doesn’t matter if you like to listen to Beethoven or not. To dispute Beethoven is to threaten the fundamental values the Twitter hordes believe are universal. Another example of elites trying to tear down core beliefs.”
There’s a lot in what McLennan says about the way social media operates, but I think the angry reactions to the “Heretic” column may go a little deeper than that. Perhaps when we rush to defend a cultural icon, it’s because we recognize that there’s good reason for it to be a cultural icon—in other words, that the thing itself has value. We still know, collectively, that Beethoven’s Ninth hasn’t just been arbitrarily chosen as an icon; we know that the splendor of the music and the ideals of freedom and brotherhood that it was written to honor have elevated it to its high place in our cultural pantheon.
Emina Melonic, a survivor of the war in Bosnia who still owns the tape of the Ninth that she listened to in a refugee camp, responded to Terauds’s column, “In a time of great suffering, this music brought hope, however fragmented it may have been. My teenage mind did not care about political or aesthetic interpretations of Beethoven’s music. My mind and heart were one because the music was an invitation to a possibility of being.”
Art isn’t just what we make of it. Art has meaning that transcends our circumstances and, at its best, makes something of us.
And ironically, the social media culture in which everyone has a voice, leading to a thousand opinions and arguments rushing by every second, may have renewed our hunger for a few shared “core beliefs” and “fundamental values,” even if they’re only beliefs about which artworks are great enough to stand the test of time. That’s why a column written specifically to chip away at those beliefs is such a bad idea. Similarly, a column written to exalt something that causes visceral disgust (i.e., “Dr. Pimple Popper”) can work to lower those high standards we still have left.
“Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows,” James tells us (1:17). A good gift implies a Giver, one who Christians believe imbues it with worth and value. We have reason to believe that some things are inherently, objectively good, and that should color all of our opinions—and keep us from formulating and sharing them for petty reasons like trolling.
So is there ever a time when it’s a good idea to share an opinion just because it’s an unpopular opinion?
There might be. One example would be a “Heretic” column by Murray Whyte, titled “Give Toronto’s most hated new piece of public art a second chance.” Whyte acknowledged that criticisms of the unwieldy new sculpture known as Three Points Where Two Lines Meet had some merit (“if I lived in the second-floor apartments whose views are now exclusively of Three Points from all angles, I might feel differently”), but he urged detractors to take some time to consider it in a new light:
I’m not sure there’s a better critical metaphor to be found for our city’s quick-build affliction, its just-add-water development agenda, its disregard for land use and public space. More than that, it’s a bit of sparkle on what has always been a grim slice of urban nowhere, a sunny wayfinder for one of the city’s most confusing corners that’s not content to merely prettify.
Regardless of how one feels about the sculpture in question, there is great value in this kind of unpopular opinion. For one thing, it’s localized. Whyte didn’t just throw a broad opinion about an iconic artifact onto the internet to troll a bunch of strangers. He wrote about a specific issue in a neighborhood he knows well about something that directly affects it and took into account the thoughts of those who live there. For another thing, it’s a well-thought-out opinion, bringing his artistic expertise to bear, not a visceral reaction. It’s also a positive perspective on something that had gotten a lot of negative reactions, rather than the other way around.
It’s this last point that should really influence the way we think about the formulation and expression of unpopular opinions. When public opinion is mostly rushing in one direction, there is value in a voice that asks us to stop and think, to reconsider, to look for goodness where we haven’t been able to see any or to notice significant weaknesses where we have been overlooking them. “Hate what is evil; cling to what is good,” instructs Paul in Romans 12:9. To be valuable, an opinion should, at the very least, acknowledge that good and bad objectively exist—and not try to mix up the two just for the sake of a good trolling.
Gina Dalfonzo is features editor for Christianity Today.