Subjective Tastes & Character Judgments—Two Great Flavors that Taste Lousy Together

“ALL I HEAR ABOUT these days is the NBA finals. Who are these brainless yahoos who get so obsessed about a ball going into a net?”

“I hate those ditzes who care so much about fashion. They’re so superficial.”

“What is it with selfies, anyway? Who are these self-involved twerps who keep taking pictures of themselves?”

“You know the kind of guy. He likes NASCAR, country music—total fool.”

Why do people do this? Why do we make character judgments about other people, based solely on their personal, subjective tastes in entirely consensual activities?

To be very clear: I’m not talking about subjective tastes that have a genuine moral component. I understand that there are moral issues with, for instance, food (eating meat or not?); consumer items (were they made by exploited laborers?); choice of transportation (does it pollute?); and lots of other examples. I’m also not talking about subjective choices that actually do immediately infringe on other people, like playing loud music at three in the morning and keeping the neighbors awake. And I’m not talking about making our own aesthetic judgments, and mouthing off about them. Of course we’re free to like or dislike any food, art, or entertainment that does or doesn’t strike our fancy—and we’re free to say so.

I’m not talking about any of that. I’m talking about making character judgments about other people, making assumptions about people’s lives, their values and relationships, even making moral judgments about them based on their tastes in music, food, art, entertainment, or other activities that are entirely subjective and consensual. I don’t get it. Why do people do this?

Actually, that’s not true. I do get it. There are lots of reasons we do this. It’s just that none of them are good reasons.

We often have good or bad associations with certain activities—and we connect those with the people we think of as participating in those activities. If you were bullied in high school by jocks, for example, you might have bad associations with sports and assume that anyone who enjoys them is a mean, mindless jerk.

We can also forget that people have widely varying tastes. If we think romance novels are formulaic and shallow, we might form a mental picture of a romance novel reader based entirely on that—forgetting that this reader may also like science fiction, books about history, nature hikes, The Simpsons, homemade chili, ballroom dancing, vintage cars, or any of the multitude of possible activities that make up a rich, full, complicated life.

In addition, we tend to associate certain activities with certain groups of people. And if there are people we already fear, hold in contempt, or otherwise dislike, we often use subjective preferences as a way to denigrate them. Many of the most widely despised personal tastes, the ones that most often get seen as character flaws, are the ones commonly enjoyed by marginalized people. Looking down on people who like rap and hip-hop, or country music, or fashion and style can be a way of denigrating black people, poor and working-class people, and women. And of course, this becomes a self-perpetuating circle. If we’re already predisposed to look down on certain kinds of people (consciously or unconsciously), we’re more likely to dislike the activities we associate with them—and our dislike of their activities becomes a justification for disliking the people.

Some people really do use aesthetic preferences as markers of group identity, and group identities often involve shared values. If we know a particular group of people with a sexist, macho worldview, and they not only like heavy metal but use their heavy metal fandom to signal their group identity to each other and the rest of the world, it’s easy to take them at their word, and assume that heavy metal really does translate to rigid gender roles and macho posturing.

But a big part of this phenomenon, I think, is simply that we like to have our decisions validated by others.

If you know anything about cognitive biases, you probably know about rationalization. Any time we make a decision, we immediately start unconsciously rationalizing why it was right. And part of how we do that is seeking out people who agree with us—and ignoring, dismissing, or pushing aside people who don’t. So when we say that we like white chocolate or basketball or Miles Davis’s music, and someone says, “Ew, I hate that”—it feels dissonant. It conflicts with our image of ourselves as someone who always makes the right decisions. It can even feel like a personal insult—even if no insult was intended, even if no insult was given, even if literally all the person said was, “I don’t like the thing that you like.” Personal tastes are subjective, but they’re also—well, personal. Disagreements with our tastes, especially ones we care about a lot, can feel like disagreements with our very being. And one way to resolve that dissonance is to distance ourselves from people who disagree, and convince ourselves that there’s something wrong with them. Even if all they disagree about is white chocolate or basketball or Miles Davis.

So I get it.

But none of it makes sense.

There are plenty of thoughtful, good-natured people who like sports. There are plenty of intelligent people with rich musical knowledge who like country music and hip-hop. There are plenty of easy-going, egalitarian people who like opera. There are plenty of confident feminists who care about fashion. And so on. They’re not rare exceptions. If you want to make judgments about people’s character, it makes no sense to focus on their subjective tastes in consensual activities. Instead, we should pay attention to, you know, how they treat other people.

If jocks were mean to you in high school, that says nothing at all about the sports fan in front of you. If some people use their fondness for heavy metal to signal their identity with a sexist subculture, that says nothing at all about the heavy metal fan in front of you. Of all the crappy excuses people have come up with to denigrate entire classes of people, “I don’t like their music or fashion” has got to be one of the crappiest.

And people can like and love and respect each other, and still have different tastes. Surely we can be confident enough, secure enough, to like the things we like, and let other people like the things they like, and not take it as an insult, a character failing, or a deep clash of our most basic values, when we like different things. If some people don’t like basketball or fashion or selfies or country music or NASCAR, or whatever entirely consensual activities you happen to enjoy, they’re not saying a single damn thing about you.

And if they are—if someone’s judging your character because you’re excited about Project Runway or the NCAA Tournament—show them this column, and tell them to knock it off.