Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Question authority - just create your own standards

I am incensed.

I am incensed that recent movie reviews from Frank Angelone, Ron Watson, and myself are not on the home page of the Rotten Tomatoes website - or, for that matter, any other page at the Rotten Tomatoes website.

Oh, and the movie that all three of us reviewed isn't there either.

So I'm going to start my own movie review website and call it Rotten Kumquats or Rotten Watermelons or something. And it will have the movie reviews that I want to see. (Since I rarely watch movies, it will be a relatively small list of reviews.)

And then I'm going to start a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that includes Kraftwerk and Depeche Mode, and a Baseball Hall of Fame that includes Pete Rose, and a Greatest Presidents of All Time site that features Gerald Ford. ("A Mayaguez WIN is a loss for swine flu.")

Well, why not? As long as I don't infringe on the trademarks of any existing hall or fame or other authority, I can declare anything I want to declare.

And before you say, "But John, you can't set up your own rock and roll hall of fame!" I ask you - why not? After all, the people who started the famous rock and roll hall of fame were just that - people. Although their names - Ahmet Ertegun, Jann Wenner, Allen Grubman, Jon Landau, Seymour Stein, Bob Krasnow, and Suzan Evans - are certainly famous, you could make an equally valid argument that a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame should have instead been started by Dick Clark, or Peter Grant, or John Lydon, or Daniel Miller, or one of Brian Wilson's former psychiatrists.

I've previously talked about how standards are developed. Basically, someone stands in the middle of the room and yells, "This is a standard!" If they yell loudly enough, then everyone else believes them and the thing becomes a standard. Ahmet Ertegun, Jann Wenner, et al could certainly yell loudly enough, and you'd think that if Google and Facebook agreed on something, they'd be yelling loudly enough.

Just remember that (outside of religion) there is nothing that is an unchangeable standard. If enough people think Snopes is unreliable, or that is inaccurate, then some other sources will arise.

For example, I've already talked about Linus Pauling and quasicrystals. Pauling famously said, "There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists." That was the standard of knowledge at the time. A couple of decades later, Dan Shechtman won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work in quasicrystals. Obviously the standard had changed.

You see this in politics all the time. When the U.S. Constitution was first adopted, slavery was perfectly legal; there was no requirement that women (or men) be allowed to vote for U.S. Senators; and there was no such thing as "freedom of speech." That's right - the reason that we talk about the First Amendment (or any amendment) is because the amendments were added to the Constitution later. Before any amendments were adopted, it was perfectly legal at the Federal level to deny someone freedom of speech, freedom of religion, a right to bear arms, or many other things. The standard changed.

And as long as we're speaking about movies, let's just look at the changes in moviemaking in the United States. In the 1930s, there was a standard for the making of motion pictures - the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 (the Hays Code). That code - the standard of its day - was so restrictive in some respects that even Saudi Arabia wouldn't adopt it today. Saudi Arabia in particular would have a problem with this little part of the Hays Code:

VIII. Religion
1. No film or episode may throw ridicule on any religious faith.

2. Ministers of religion in their character as ministers of religion should not be used as comic characters or as villains.

3. Ceremonies of any definite religion should be carefully and respectfully handled.

Let's just say that Saudi Arabia would have no problem in applying these standards to one particular religion. For the other religions? Forget about it.

And my mention of Saudi Arabia reminds us that there are such things as "community standards," and that standards could differ from community to community. Appropriate behavior for two twenty-something female software engineers in San Francisco, California might be entirely unappropriate for two sixty-something housewives in Mecca, Saudi Arabia - and vice versa. (Despite all of the talk in the United States about how love should not be constrained by law, the two women in Saudi Arabia are free to marry the same man; the two women in San Francisco are legally prohibited from doing so.)

Of course, this multiplicity of standards makes regular life complicated. We can't say that Wikipedia is the authoritative encyclopedia, Snopes is the authoritative fact-checker, Microsoft is the authoritative operating system provider, or that the Peace and Freedom Party is the one true political party. We have to decide what sources we deem to be reliable. We have to create our own standards.

And that can be fun.
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