Which is worse, epic hyperbole!!! or “meh”?
Tasha: Here’s how this debate got started. Last fall, Josh, Nathan, and I all saw Machete, the Robert Rodriguez/Danny Trejo action film about a Mexican vigilante with a vendetta on his mind and a lot of chopping, cutting, and stabbing weapons readily to hand. Josh loved it; I thought it was overlong, but generally okay. But moderate praise wasn’t enough for Josh, who began relentlessly ridiculing me for “hating fun.” “You just hate fun” has become a fairly common insult around the A.V. Club’s Chicago offices, where Kyle regularly refers to “noted enemy of joy Scott Tobias” whenever he and Scott disagree about the enjoyment level of a piece of pop culture, and many of us periodically accuse each other of a monstrous, even criminal inability to enjoy enjoyable things.
But at one staff meeting, Josh threw the “you hate fun” accusation at me over Machete yet again, and I rebelled. I didn’t hate Machete. I don’t hate dumb-fun movies as a class, particularly not if they approach the idea with a tongue-in-cheek self-awareness. (I shared Josh’s appreciation for Crank, for instance, though again, not to the same rapturous degree.) And Josh knew that, but, well, we tease each other a lot, and he knew that by exaggerating shamelessly about my stance, he could get my goat, express his own frustration over my refusal to thoroughly embrace something he loved, and make enough of a joke out of that frustration that it didn’t need to become an actual argument.
Problem is, it seemed to me that he was falling into a troubling dynamic we’re seeing more and more often in the public pop-culture conversation these days. It seems to have originated online—the Internet isn’t the original home of extreme opinions and extreme expressions of those opinions, but it’s certainly a venue where the freedom of anonymity (and, paradoxically, the drive to make yourself stand out from the anonymous crowd) encourages extremity over civility and moderation. But it’s traveling more and more into real-life social circles these days, at least if ours are any indication. Essentially, it’s the hyperbolic belief that only the poles of opinion are relevant: Everything can be divided simply into awesome or terrible, fantastic or utter shit, EPIC FAIL or EPIC WIN. (The Internet didn’t invent extremity, but it did invent failblog.org.) There’s nothing in the middle; you love something or hate it. You’re with us or against us.
We see the same sort of attitude on our comment boards frequently, with a great deal of frustration over reviews with moderate grades, particularly on polarizing films like Michael Bay’s Transformers movies. The comments on those two reviews are essentially a lengthy parade of angry demands that the grade either be changed to an A+ or an F-, surrounded by extended rants from people raving at each other over whether the Transformers movies are fantastic, and anyone who thinks otherwise is a pompous killjoy, or they’re the death of cinema, and anyone who thinks otherwise is a brain-dead Bay-spoonie. It’s all part and parcel of the famous Internet intolerance for anyone with diverging opinions, and the lack of nuance drives me a bit nuts, particularly when it infects otherwise intelligent people who fall into the trap of responding to measured criticism with “Why did you totally hate that?”
But when I brought that up, Keith said he’d take this kind of extremism and Internet-level hyperbole—“Machete is the best film evar!!!1!”—any day over another increasingly common public reaction in the cultural debate: the dismissive, snarky “meh,” which throws the “fail or win” argument out the window entirely, along with any other possible response.
Personally, I think “Meh” is an entirely natural, healthy reaction to pop culture as we experience it today. But we’ll get into that. First, I’ve spent enough time setting this up as it is. Sell me, Keith. Where do you think the “meh” idea comes from, and what’s so wrong with it as a reaction to the world?
Keith: I’m not sure where “meh” comes from, but I’m tempted to say my generation. When generalizations started to emerge about Generation X around the time I entered college, I read them with amusement and thought them a little ridiculous. But I think there are some generational traits that people our age share, and one of them is a skeptical attitude toward hype. And hear me well: That’s a good thing. There’s a great divide between being told how awesome New Coke is in 30-second blasts every 10 minutes and the actual experience of drinking New Coke. We learned to resist received wisdom—the ’60s were the apex of modern culture, Robin Williams is a comic genius, Oliver Stone is a great filmmaker—and that resistance served us well.
But I think skepticism has a lot in common with white blood cells: The proper amount guards against disease, but too much starts killing healthy tissue. And that’s where “meh” comes in. “Meh” is easy. “Meh” can be applied to anything. “Meh” tells me nothing. It’s dismissive without being insightful. This exchange tells me nothing:
“Hey, what did you think of [last night’s episode of 30 Rock / the new Jonathan Franzen novel / Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs]?”
Actually, no, it does say something. It says the person on the “meh” end of the exchange hasn’t engaged with the subject at all. “Meh” should be reserved for objects of absolute mediocrity, which are relatively rare in my experience. Why not take a moment to translate “meh” into “I didn’t think it was that great. I thought the main plot with Jack and Liz seemed a bit familiar, and the Tracy subplot felt forced, though I think Elizabeth Banks has been a nice addition.” It isn’t hard. (Well, it’s hard to do it well enough to get paid to do it professionally. Never forget that. Support your local critic, folks.)
Worse, I think the sound of “meh” is the sound of passion dying. And while I think the type of hyperbolic overstatement you detail is problematic for all the reasons you list, here’s the deal: I’ll take it any day over “meh.” It lets me know you felt something. No, not everything can be divided into epic wins and epic fails, but I’ll take a strong opinion, even a badly argued strong opinion, over dismissal any day.
Tasha: I’ll admit I don’t love “meh.” We’re arguing over which of two bad things is worse; neither of us is going to bat for “win/fail” or “I-can’t-be-arsed-to contribute” as good things. That said, you can’t have it both ways; one has to be worse than the other, or what are we arguing about? And personally, I think hyperbole is far more annoying than “meh.” You’d say you’d rather have a badly argued strong opinion than a dismissal, but I’d just as soon leave the people who don’t care out of the debate. And “meh,” in a Darwin Awards sort of way, lets those people drop out of the conversation, and saves me the energy of fighting back. Yes, it’s snarky, smug, and infuriating, but only because it implies that whatever opinion you’re professing, whatever show or film or book or subject you want to talk about, isn’t worth the other person’s time or energy. And if you say “Last night’s episode of 30 Rock was really interesting” and they say “Meh,” they’re dismissing you as well as the thing you care about. That’s insulting.
But here’s the thing: If they don’t want to engage, you don’t have to care. Their lack of interest in the cultural conversation is not your problem. There’s no reason for you to have a personal investment in someone else being invested enough in your topic of choice to come to grips with it. Much like the “Pft, I’ve never heard of this person” reaction we sometimes get to our obituaries, “meh” reflects a smug, entitled sort of ignorance that says, “This thing isn’t even worth the time it would take to thoughtfully consider it”—but it reflects badly on the person saying it, in a way that has no relation to you. The proper response to “meh” is to say, “Okay, you don’t care enough to engage, therefore we have nothing to discuss,” and to walk away.
But on the other end of the pole, “Transformers is the [best/worst] movie of all time, ever, and if you don’t [hate/love] it, you suck and your opinions don’t matter” is an aggressive, obnoxious challenge. It says, “I’m engaged, I want to argue, but I won’t actually hear anything you say, because I’m not arguing from a legitimate stance, I’m just overstating my case in order to beat you down.” “You hate Machete and all other fun things because you hate fun” is deliberately dismissing a conversational partner’s opinion by pretending it’s too ridiculous to grapple with. It’s attempting to preemptively end the debate before it starts by blowing off anything the other person has to say.
In short, both “meh” and hyperbole are provocations, but the former is a retreat, while the latter is an attack. And while walking away from both is still the intelligent response, walking away from an attack feels like agreeing with it, or kowtowing to it, or cringing before it. And yet there’s no point in arguing with it, because there’s no value to it. It’s just loud, excessive noise, from someone bringing no nuance to the table. There’s no arguing with “This is the best/worst thing ever,” because there’s nothing to grasp. There’s no information there.
Which is why I find “meh” much less offensive; it’s wussy instead of argumentative. And yet I also sometimes think it’s the correct response to our world—the only plausible response. But I’d like to hear your argument on behalf of hyperbole. Why is “meh” worse? Is hyperbole ever justified? Does it serve any useful purpose at all?
Keith: Hyperbole is justified when talking about the following items: Don Quixote, the Richard Lester film Petulia, the recordings of Mulatu Astatke, and the early piano compositions of Erik Satie, all of which are beyond amazing, possibly the best stuff EVAR. Is hyperbole ever useful? Absolutely. Were you thinking about any of those things before I got in your face about them? Did my passion intrigue you? Sure, hyperbole is cheap and it wears thin quickly, but it does grab the attention. (And, for the record, I do love all of the above.)
Problem is, I think you’re concentrating on the aspects that wear thin. I feel like you’ve sketched out an aggressive, obnoxious worst-case scenario for hyperbole—having just experienced such a worst-case scenario. I don’t want to redefine the terms as we go… Well, maybe I do. Not all hyperbole, not everyone declaring the latest episode of, say, No Ordinary Family an epic win, has an aggressive agenda in mind. Maybe some people out there just love what they love. And, sure, that fervor may fade with time. But why fault for someone for getting caught up in loving something?
I’ll go even further: Maybe it’s worth listening to the blowhards once in a while and taking a moment to wonder if you should care. Shake off the gray coat of “meh” for a moment and consider where they’re coming from. Why would people love this the way they do? You may not ever be the person loving the Transformers movie, but take a moment to get in the skin of someone who does. What do they get from it? Where does the love come from? Understanding the epic instinct requires a bit of empathy. Meh means retreating into solipsism.
Tasha: I’ll grant you that. I don’t think rampant exaggeration is a mature or useful response to enthusiasm, but I can respect passion over apathy, if you’re going to put it in those terms. That said, while “meh” is a retreat, it doesn’t have to be a retreat as far as solipsism. If “epic win/fail” can just be a sign of enthusiasm, I think “meh” can just as readily be a sign of refusing to be manipulated, refusing to buy into the hype that surrounds us at all times.
Thanks to the Internet and other increased means of entertainment distribution, we’re barraged with new content—news, ideas, products, pop culture—at all times, and most marketers seem to think it’s absolutely necessary to shout as loud as they can about their product in order to get us to pay attention at all. Your “best stuff EVAR” line is a joke, but that’s how things are being sold to us at all times. It’s OH MY GOD CRUCIAL that we care about the new Katy Perry album or the new Adam Sandler movie or the new plastic-surgery reality show or the new iWhatever from Apple, because it’s fantastic, because absolutely everyone is talking about it, because absolutely everybody cares, and if we don’t, we’re going to get left behind. TV news is a frantic froth of “This might kill you… or your kids!” and TV entertainment is an equally frantic froth of “Don’t get left behind! Everyone but you is in on the new thing!” And as I said in my opening comments, I think “meh” is an entirely healthy response.
Because often enough, what we’re being asked to engage with really isn’t worth our time and energy. So much of this news, these products, these cultural artifacts, are entirely ephemeral, and it’s worth saving our interest until something significant and different and meaningful comes along. “Meh” as a conversational response can be rude, but as a response to excessive hype from people who just want to sell you something, who basically see you as a pocketbook that needs to be badgered into opening, it strikes me as pretty healthy.
Keith: You’re not wrong, Tasha. (Take a moment to savor those precious, precious words before the “but.”) But I think “meh” can too easily become a reflex action. You can meh yourself into missing out on something that’s actually awesome because you’ve grown so used to the sub-awesome. “Meh,” to me, ultimately means closing off the possibilities.
But you’ve conceded part of my point, so let me also concede part of yours: A “meh” deficiency can be dangerous too. I know my reputation in these pages isn’t as someone who gives out a lot of positive reviews, but I always try. The moment a theater goes black, I try to give every movie a chance. And occasionally I have to do a gut check, because I find myself overthinking things. To wit: When I saw the movie You Again this summer, I didn’t laugh, but I wound up trying to appreciate what the film was going for—not much, but nothing wrong with easy laughs once in a while—and focus on how game Kristen Bell, Betty White, and some of the supporting cast were, even though the material wasn’t that strong. But overthinking can be dangerous: You can end up looking at the parts while overlooking the whole, in this case a not-very-funny movie. (I ended up giving it a C, by the way, so sanity prevailed.)
Still, I try to be open to things. And I know you do, too. I just wonder if we’re at opposite, equally useful points on the “Epic vs. Meh” spectrum. Can we condemn the extremists and agree to get along, me clinging to my occasionally strained optimism, you with your protective skepticism? Or am I misrepresenting the situation?
Okay, just kidding. As we’ve been volleying this conversation back and forth this week, it’s been hard to suppress the urge to respond to whatever you say with “meh” solely because it’s easy, it’s entertainingly contrarian, and it annoys you. And I think that’s where we’ll find common ground: in acknowledging that regardless of which is worse, dismissing something out of hand and vastly overstating its value or suckitude are both just cheap-n-easy ways out of a meaningful debate. Hyperbole has its side career as a selling tool or attention-grabber, but as an argumentative tool, it and “meh” come from the same place: a desire to belittle and infuriate someone whose opinions disagree with yours, while expending as little energy as possible. (It’s a big Internet. There’s a lot to argue about. You can’t bring your A game to every discussion.) And there isn’t much to respect in either of those things.
Here’s a thought, though, that comes both out of my own urge to “meh” at you for the humor value, and out of thinking about Josh’s “You totally hated Machete!” jibe, which started this whole conversation: Both hyperbole and meh have a certain amount of cachet among friends as ways to disarm pop-culture arguments before they get heated, or before they drag on to the point where they’re boring. And among friends, both are less offensive, and both can be kind of funny. Given that usage, I’d actually probably prefer hyperbole solely because it keeps the conversation going. “You hate Machete because you hate fun” isn’t much of a conversation, but it’s banter-y and it’s mostly good-natured, and it leaves the door open to the kind of reciprocal teasing we do a lot around here. I hope you can ultimately respect “meh” in the same way, as something that’s occasionally meant playfully, as a tease rather than a hateful jab.
Keith: Fair enough. I declare this discussion closed. And also epic.