De gustibus non est disputandum
In matters of taste there can be no dispute.
Can this statement itself not be disputed? If I were to eat fish that has gone off, and, not even realising that it has gone off – or, perhaps, realising, but not caring – find this rotten fish to my taste, can it not reasonably be claimed that my taste is poor? But even here, I think, if I enjoy rotten fish, then it is my privilege to do so, and there can be no room for dispute on this point.
So, in short, everyone is entitled to like or to dislike whatever they damn well want. There is never, and nor can there ever be, any argument on this point.
However, being a self-proclaimed argumentative old git, I can’t quite let it go there. The expression of an opinion – an expression, inevitably, of one’s personal taste – is frequently presented as a final word: “it’s just my opinion” is a phrase almost invariably intended as the last word in any argument – the adjective “just” denoting the very opposite of the humility and self-deprecation implied by its literal meaning: it’s a way of saying “This is my opinion, an expression of my personal taste, and don’t you dare dispute that!” Fair enough. As we all agreed, there can be no disputing that. And yet, something in me in me demands that I dispute it: there is in me a perverse streak that sees “It’s just my opinion” as but the beginning of a debate, not the end of one.
At the very least, if personal taste is to be the ultimate criterion – even if that personal taste is unable to distinguish fresh fish from rotten – let us at least consider the nature of this “personal taste”. Is it innate in us ? – is it something we are born with? Up to a point, certainly. It is also, I think, what we take in as we grow up – what we are accustomed to: as in the shaping of our personalities, both nature and nurture play major parts in shaping our tastes.
But then, what are we to make of “acquired taste”? What can we make of those things we like – often love, sometimes love passionately – but which we only came to love after much exposure, and not at first sight? I cannot, for instance, believe that there can be too many people – if, indeed, any at all – who love beer at first taste. Especially English ales. Now, I love a good pint of English ale, and I know that this love is not an affectation on my part; and yet, it took me a long, long time to get round to liking these ales; and those who have not yet developed a taste for them tend, I have noticed, to turn away even at first gulp in barely-concealed disgust. It is, in short, an “acquired taste” – although, I’d argue, a taste that is well worth acquiring.
Moving away from food and drink, it seems to me that much – if, indeed, not most, or even all – that I love and value most dearly are “acquired tastes”. Often, this is inevitably so: when we describe something as “deep”, we are using a metaphor to denote that much of its substance lies below the surface; and when this is so, how can we hope to gauge its true worth from a first glance that takes in no more than merely the surface? Does not the taste for anything that is “deep” need to be acquired?
But how exactly do we “acquire” tastes for certain things? By exposing ourselves to them over time, seems the obvious answer. But one cannot expose oneself over time to everything; and if, at first acquaintance, something had made but an indifferent or even a bad impression, then we are not very likely to welcome further exposure to it: life isn’t long enough to persevere with everything. Inevitably, one has to choose what one perseveres with, and the factors governing these choices seem to me worth considering. There’s social pressure, for a start (without social pressure, the market for English ales may, I fear, be very small indeed); there is, sometimes, an inkling even from an inadequate first viewing that there had been more than had initially met the eye; and it may be that those whose judgement we trust convince us that the effort put into liking something – even if that something seems unpromising to begin with – may be rewarded. But whatever the reason for pursuing further that which had not at first made too great an impression, the fact remains that the decision to pursue it or otherwise is our decision, it is our choice. In short, up to a considerable extent, far more so, I think, than is generally recognised, we may choose what we like or dislike; we may direct our own tastes.
Let me propose an example. I may choose, if I were so inclined, to like Renaissance polyphony. This is something I know very little about; but I may listen to recordings of masses and motets by Byrd and Palestrina and Lassus; I may read books about them, to understand them better; I may attend concerts; I may, in short, immerse myself in all this, until my ear and my mind learn to pick out the esoteric beauties of this music, to distinguish its subtleties. Now, it may be, of course, that my ear isn’t up to it; or it may be that my mind can’t take it in; or it may be that even after I had trained myself to take it all in, there remains some inexplicable aspect in my character that refuses to enjoy it. All this is true. But it is also true that if I choose not to make the effort, then I’d never get to like this complex and intricate music. So do I make the effort, or don’t I? The choice is mine. If, inspired by the belief that it is highly unlikely for something not worthwhile to be thought of so highly by generations of intelligent and discerning people across the centuries, I do make the effort, then I may get to like it; but if, on the other hand, I cling to the belief that all “classical music” is stuffy and elitist and but a symbol of middle-class privilege, and I do not make the effort, then I certainly won’t get to like it. To a very great extent, what I end up liking or not liking is a consequence of a conscious choice on my part.
So yes, in matters of taste there can be no dispute. But the directions in which we choose to develop our personal tastes seem to me very much open to debate. And as an argumentative old git, I can only welcome that.