Why “Liking” Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be

I saw a wonderful play this evening: Conor McPherson’s The Night Alive, performed in Hungarian (Eleven éjszaka) by the Szkéné Színház, who came to Szolnok to perform it. It was funny, sad, somewhat absurd, and strangely relevant. Even though the plot is removed from my life in almost every possible way, it seemed to hit something I am going through right now, some kind of question I am wrestling with. I can say that I liked the play, but that’s really shorthand for something more. “Liking” is beside the point here.

I have written about this subject before: how “liking” isn’t as important as it is made out to be, how the things that affect us the most are not always the things we like, and so forth. Liking implies a smoothness of reaction, a lack of resistance, but some of the most interesting works, people, places we encounter are the ones that strike some kind of rebellion in us, or at least a vigil of sorts. There are unpleasant but profoundly intelligent and moral people; there are works that leave us somewhat uneasy, in the best of ways.

For years I didn’t like the songwriter Mark Eitzel or his erstwhile band, the American Music Club. People were dismayed when I told them this. “How could you not like Mark Eitzel?” they wailed. But I didn’t. The music sounded too glossy to my ear. I didn’t understand what it was about. Only now, years later, do I hear the brilliance of those songs. I will now walk through his repertoire slowly. I might come to love it. And I might still not like it.

Away from music and into personal relations: there are people I have respected, admired, loved, and not necessarily liked—people with serious faults, quirks, disagreeable aspects. I would not wish likeability on them in a million years. They are better as they are. God, they drive me crazy sometimes. But I am glad they exist.

Liking is somewhat lazy. That doesn’t deplete it of value. It’s good to have some people, some food, some things in your life that you just like without resistance. People you feel comfortable around, whose company you enjoy. Art, music, books that give you pleasure. Meals that make you smile after you have finished your chewing and swallowing. But pleasure doesn’t have the final word.

None of this is mutually exclusive. You can struggle with something, come to love it, and then, over time, take a liking to it too. Or in reverse order. But if you don’t like something, that doesn’t render it worthless. Your reckoning with it might be one of the most important battles of your life.

This question has many implications for education. Is it important for students to like what they study? Yes and no.

On the one hand, if they absolutely detest what they are learning, or are bored by it, then something is probably going wrong (in terms of curriculum, instruction, or study practices). On the other hand, if they judge the curriculum according to their liking of it, and if the school and teachers encourage such judging, then everyone is missing the point. School should not be pure torture or pure entertainment. It is a chance to come to know something that you didn’t know before. This can bring both exhilaration and discomfort. Let us honor the not-quite-liking.

I will be presenting on this topic (in particular, how it pertains to education) at the ALSCW Conference in October, in the seminar on “General Education and the Idea of a Common Culture.”

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3 Comments

  1. Very much so. I do admire your subtle distinctions.
    Yes, the social-media Like is quite something else, a weak, as you say lazy, semi-response.
    And I regret its existence.
    But we do have to realise, and to remember, that it is only a means of expressing appreciation, an acknowledgement of agreement, or even an acknowledgement that someone has read one’s piece with attention.

    Reply
    • Thank you. Yes, you are right. The social-media Like *can* be a means of expressing appreciation, agreement, or attention. And it’s fairly neutral, so it doesn’t tend to create misunderstandings.

      Reply

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    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In April 2022, Deep Vellum published her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

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