Some time ago I noticed my reaction to someone’s pants. I noticed I was thinking things like, “Those are ridiculous pants. Doesn’t she know how ridiculous she looks wearing them?”
And, since I like thinking about thinking and feeling and all sorts of things, I started thinking about this reaction of mine.
If I were a really good person, would I have only positive reactions to people’s pants? Something like, “Those pants are different. She sure has her own sense of style. Good for her.” Or maybe I wouldn’t react to the pants at all.
I was also thinking, where does my reaction come from? Why do I care if her pants are ridiculous? Why, especially, do I care if she KNOWS she looks ridiculous, and judge her for not seeming to know?
(Maybe the good person’s reaction would be to say, “Those pants look ridiculous to me, but she doesn’t think so, and that’s okay.” But I don’t think so; I don’t think a good person would think any pants were ridiculous. And I think anyone who does think the pants are ridiculous would think the wearer should think so, too. Otherwise, they’re not really ridiculous — ridiculous would be a meaningless word if the same pants were ridiculous to me but not to you.)
I think I have often felt that people thought I was ridiculous in one way or another, and we tend to judge or react in the same ways we’ve been judged or reacted to.
It’s bad to be ridiculous. And it’s especially bad to not know it. If other people think you’re ridiculous, you should have the proper shame to know it and hang your head about it. People will take advantage of your naiveté if you’re ridiculous and don’t even know it. They’ll lead you along and laugh at you and use you for their contemptuous amusement.
And so, somehow, seeing someone who looks ridiculous to me evokes that same reaction — a kind of automatic “this is what people do when they see someone ridiculous” thing. And, when I think I might be ridiculous in someone else’s eyes, that evokes a sense of obligation to hang my head in shame. As if their judgment is what matters! As if I have to agree with them that not only am I ridiculous, but I should be ashamed of it, too.
I’d like to be more like that person who thought her pants were fantastic and enjoyed wearing them, without a thought in the world about whether anyone else thought they looked ridiculous. And I’d like to have that “Doesn’t she know she looks ridiculous” thought, and others like it, occur to me less and less often. What about you — how often do you notice yourself having these kinds of thoughts?
Preference is an interesting thing. To what extent are preferences subject to judgment — having anything to do with categories like good or bad or ridiculous? To what extent do people react to others’ different preferences? To what extent do we act like there’s some objective standard by which to judge whose preferences are best or right? Or which issues are merely matters of preference and which matters are subject to judgment?
How do we talk about preference in meaningful ways, beyond “I like it” or “I don’t like it” — we appeal to the various kinds of reasons why we like or don’t like it, expecting our conversation partner to understand those reasons.
We can talk about beauty, for example — what makes a great painting great, why certain colors or patterns work well together, how a piece of music evokes the feelings it does, why those pants strike me as ridiculous. But not everyone thinks that painting is great. Is it entirely a matter of preference? Or is the person wrong not to appreciate that painting — do they need to be educated, or to acquire a proper taste? Is there such a thing as a wrong or bad preference?
This post has been stewing or swirling incoherently since I saw the pants; in the meantime, my former anthropology professor had a piece published that discusses preference in regard to pastured pork and deals with some similar or related questions about the nature of preference. My post is still pretty incoherent, but I figured it could only stew for so long; if it hasn’t coalesced nicely by now, swirling it longer isn’t likely to help.