Here’s my favorite joke. I have no idea where it comes from, but I’ve never heard it outside of Australia. It goes like this:
One day, Job, a prosperous and loyal servant of God, wakes up to find his livestock all afflicted with a horrible disease. As he watches the last of his cattle succumb, he turns to the heavens and shouts “Why, God?! Why!?” Later, he receives news that all ten of his beautiful children have been killed by marauding invaders. Once again, Job turns his head skyward and wails “Why, God?! Why?!”. Not long after that, Job is struck down with a terrible sickness. He lays in bed in agony, with no children to comfort him, his life and livelihood in ruins, and as his fever rises and he feels certain that death is near, he lets out an anguished cry — “Why, God!? Why?!”. And God goes, “Oh, I dunno, Job, ya just shit me.”
Possibly some of it is lost in writing it down, possibly more is lost here because God’s punchline is most effective when delivered in a lazy Australian drawl. Possibly American readers will not be familiar with the regional idiom “ya just shit me,” known to most Australians as it’s in Latin on our coat of arms. In any case, there’s a reason I tell this joke: I want to talk about the liberating joy of hating something for no good reason.
There’s a mug in our house which I despise. It works fine as a mug insofar as it holds liquid, but it’s a funny shape and it shits me. More than once I’ve spotted this mug on the corner of a table and thought just a little push is all it would take. Who would know? I could tell my wife our toddler did it. It would be, in terms of mug destroying, the perfect crime. I haven’t done this yet. Partly because at least some bit of me recognizes that this is exactly the sort of thing an insane person does, partly because if I’m really honest with myself, I like hating the mug. I like nurturing my uncritical disdain for this thing. On some level, it’s a reminder that there’s a part of me with extremely strong preferences to which I don’t have critical access, but which nonetheless makes up something of who I am.
Now, the reason I can happily hate this mug without getting bogged down in the whys and wherefores is because I’m not trying to win anyone over to Team Let’s Throw The Mug Under a Car. The mug is not part of the discourse, and I haven’t been prompted to defend my position on it to anyone. If ever I were, I think I could probably come up with some concrete arguments (handle too small for fingers, opening so wide is basically a damn soup bowl, occasionally inverts self in dishwasher so when drawer is opened at end of cycle sloshes weird hot dishwasher water on pants), but in doing so, I feel like something would be lost. And what’s more, I’d just be retrofitting some half-baked reasoning onto something larger and unknowable and pretending that it was about those things all along.
This is all relatively uncontroversial when applied to a mug, but when it comes to bigger stuff — most obviously art and popular culture, but also when we’re talking about people, places, and even larger items of crockery — there seems to be pushback on disliking something uncritically. You’ve got to show your work.
And I get that. Showing your work is very often a worthwhile thing to do. Holding up your instinctual reaction to the light and having a nice think about how you got there is a good way of understanding the world and yourself. It’s especially useful when it comes to recognizing the biases and prejudices and general assumptions that you carry around without realizing. Fossicking around in the garbage of your vague contempt to try and find something cogent can be an important thing to do. In some cases. In others it becomes an exhausting and pointless exercise in trying to cram purely aesthetic judgements into rickety moral frameworks.
Ironically, it’s worth probing a little deeper into why exactly we do this to ourselves. If I see a Twitter account that tweets in the voice of Joe Biden’s dog, why does my initial instinct that it sucks a tremendous amount not feel like enough? Why does my brain immediately start trying to formulate how the account pretending to be Joe Biden’s dog in some way enables the rise of fascism? Why do I feel compelled to justify my contempt for something that, to me, is so obviously contemptible? It may be because I think that I should be incapable of pettiness of this kind. That I could so strongly dislike this shitty account on any grounds other than nice big ethical ones seems to say something unflattering about me and my priorities.
But the other reason I do this is because I have already, probably unconsciously from the moment I saw the account say something like “Me and PAWsident wish everyone a GRRRReat Thanksgiving!”, moved from holding the opinion that this account is terrible to prosecuting that opinion. This is because social media has done certain things to my brain for which I assume a great many people will one day go to prison. The moment I go well, I don’t like that one bit, I’ve already started formulating the ways in which, were I to post about this, it would be greeted by the various bozos who’d disagree with me, what I would say to counter the claims of these bozos, what the bozos would say in return, and so on and so forth. In this way, I’ve taken my initial instinct that someone pretending to be the president’s dog on Twitter for clout quite simply heebies my jeebies and bolted on ethical concerns about which no right-thinking person could disagree.
It’s worth pointing out that I do all of this despite a bone-deep knowledge that my time is finite and one day I will die.
Why does my brain immediately start trying to formulate how the account pretending to be Joe Biden’s dog in some way enables the rise of fascism?
I do the same with NFTs. There are a lot of ethical and rational reasons to dislike them: the environmental impact, the fact that many appear to be nothing more than Ponzi schemes preying on vulnerable dopes with expensive pictures of apes, the way they seem to perfectly encapsulate the dizzying disparity in wealth of our era. But in my heart of hearts, the main and primary reason I react with an almost visceral nausea whenever I see these things in the news is this: They are liked, promoted and talked about by people who I find to be some of the most irritating fuckwits on the planet. Admitting that doesn’t make me wrong, in fact, right or wrong doesn’t come into whether or not something annoys me. And owning that does some wonderful things.
Firstly, it frees me up to think about literally anything else. The mental benefits of this are difficult to overstate, and your mileage may vary, but actively choosing what I think about, rather than being governed by the ebb and flow of the discourse, has made me a much happier person. Happier here may be overstating things, but at the very least, I’m optimistic that choosing to let some stuff simply just shit me will keep me from one day having a full blown mental event in a Kmart.
And secondly, I recognize that I have — and I think we all have — a limited capacity for curiosity. Puzzling out why I feel certain ways about certain things is an ongoing process: the often pleasurable, sometimes embarrassing unfolding of self-knowledge. But when I do that for every single thing that crosses my path my ability to see what’s important and what isn’t gets diminished. It changes me from a complicated human being with a range of things I like and dislike to an unpaid critic-at-large on the Everything Beat. And, Job, that shits me.
Ben Jenkins is a writer from Sydney, Australia.