Mark Shenton: We need to accentuate the positive while agreeing to disagree

Photo: Shutterstock
by -

The great Broadway lyricist Johnny Mercer once came up with a sentiment that is still a great thing to live by, for an Oscar-nominated song in the 1944 film Here Come the Waves:

You’ve got to accentuate the positive,
Eliminate the negative,
Latch on to the affirmative,
Don’t mess with Mister In-Between.
You got to spread joy up to the maximum,
Bring gloom down to the minimum,
Have faith or pandemonium’s
Liable to walk upon the scene.

We live in an increasingly fractured – and fractious – world, so it’s a thought that’s worth holding on to.

The Guardian is currently trying to put that into practice in some of its journalism. Last weekend, Mark Rice-Oxley reported on its scheme to deliberately seek out some of the good things happening in the world.

“News doesn’t have to be bad,” he wrote. “The planet is complex. Away from the horror and conflict, the shouting and the skulduggery, away from the tragedy, disaster and zero-sum misanthropy, there is a wide world of answers and improvements, of win-win and mutual support, of selflessness and curiosity, of movements and innovations. And when you write about it, people tend to respond positively.

It’s why there’s nothing more satisfying, within my own world of covering the theatre in front of and behind the footlights, than sharing good news: a rave review is so much more joyful to write than a scathing one.

And it inspires positive action, too: when I write favourably about a show, people reply that they’ve booked tickets as a direct result. Of course, that’s what theatres want and I’m proud to publicise productions I’d like people to share my enthusiasm for. But I’m not an adjunct of the marketing department and have an equal responsibility to explain honestly why I can’t be as positive about others. After all, people are spending money as a direct result.

A critic’s job is to give an impression of what the production is like, so others can measure their own tastes against it

It’s a fine balance, but you also want people to make up their own minds. A critic’s job is to present the evidence and give an impression of what the production is like, so others can measure their own tastes against it. I’ve avoided some shows that have received rave reviews – and had my curiosity piqued by others that have had negative ones.

It’s all part of the rich tapestry of theatre and personal taste. And it’s also why, as James Graham wrote eloquently in the Guardian, we need more civility in public conversation.

Just the other day I found myself engaging in a Twitter spat with a fellow journalist whom I really like but who writes occasionally for the Daily Mail. It got quite heated and I even called the fees she receives from it “blood money”. I don’t like the Mail, but it was a step too far. She also needs to earn a crust.

We need to keep having those conversations, though – and not just exchanges of rapid-fire messages on Twitter or WhatsApp. Graham quotes MIT academic Sherry Turtle saying we rarely use our phones to make calls anymore.

“Talking leaves you vulnerable, whereas messaging helps you edit. But without vulnerability, we can’t have intimacy. And without intimacy, real conversation dies.”

We need to be kinder to each other – and to listen to and embrace world views that may be different from our own.

A few decades ago, another MIT expert, Nicholas Negroponte, predicted a news product called “the Daily Me”. He was thinking of tailored, localised content that revolved around the user’s life and interests, but, as Nicholas Kristof noted in a New York Times column last week: “What actually arrived with the internet was a highly political version of the Daily Me.” This delivers content to us that is tailored to our own particular views of the world already.

But we need to be able to have them challenged – and possibly changed. As Kristof writes: “When we stay within our own tribe, talking mostly to each other, it’s difficult to woo other tribes to achieve our aims.

“It should be possible both to believe deeply in the rightness of one’s own cause and to hear out the other side. Civility is not a sign of weakness, but of civilisation.”

I never say another critic is wrong: we may not agree, but we are only sharing our opinions

That ties in with a desire to accentuate the positive, too. We should agree to disagree. And that’s why I never say another critic is wrong: we may not agree, but we are only sharing our opinions. And it’s fascinating to read and try to engage with those that are diametrically opposed to ours.