On Accurate Evaluation

It’s no secret that I have a deep fascination with people’s opinions about “popular opinion”. While sometimes popular opinion is easy to ascertain, I’ve noticed that accurately assessing what “most people know/believe” is a bit of an art form. This is particularly true in the era of social media hottakes, all of which seem to take the form of “this thing you love is terrible” or “this thing you hate is actually great”.

I have such an obsession with this phenomena that I gave it a name (the Tim Tebow effect) which I define as “The tendency to increase the strength of a belief based on an incorrect perception that your viewpoint is underrepresented in the public discourse”.

I was thinking about this recently after reading the Slate Star Codex post on the “Intellectual Dark Web” called “Can Things Be Both Popular and Silenced?” In typical SSC fashion it’s really long and very thorough, and basically discusses how many different ways there are of measuring things like “popular” and “silenced”. For example, Jordan Peterson appears to make an absurd amount of money through Patreon ($19-84k per month by this estimate), so in some sense he is clearly popular. OTOH, he has also had threats made against him and people attempt to shut down his lectures, so in some sense there are also attempts to silence him. It’s this tension that Alexander explores, and he covers a lot of ground.

Given that my brain tends to uh, bounce around a little bit, this essay got me thinking of another topic entirely: the situation of women in the Victorian Era.

This connects, I promise.

Anyone who knows me or has seen my Kindle knows that I have a very bad habit of acquiring an enormous backlog of books to read. It’s so bad that I keep a running spreadsheet of how much I should be reading each week, because of course I do, and I tend to be flipping between at least a dozen at a time. Recently I picked up two I’d had hanging around for a while Unmentionable: the Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage and Manners and Victorian Secrets: What a Corset Taught Me about the Past, the Present, and Myself. I had thought these two would go well together as they appeared to be on the same topic, but they ended up being almost diametrically opposed.

Unmentionable took the stance that we all (or at least women) idolized the Victorian era, and it’s stated goal was to make us realized how bad it actually was. Victorian Secrets OTOH took the stance that we all thought too little of the Victorian era, and wanted to explain some of the good things about it.

I spent a lot of time mulling those two statements, and ended up deciding that they really both had some truth to them. In Unmentionable, she talks about how Jane Austen movies make it all look like romance and pretty dresses, which is a fair charge. Her chapters on how those pretty dresses were never washed, and how you’re not taking a shower or washing your hair much, and how unsanitary most things are was pretty interesting and made me quite grateful for modern conveniences. In Victorian Secrets, the author wore a corset for a year and ended up wearing lots of other Victorian clothes, and mentioned that the corset had gotten a rather unfair rap. She had done a lot of research and had some interesting points about how Victorian’s weren’t as backwards as they are sometimes portrayed. This also felt fair.

Interestingly, in order to make their points, both authors relied on different sources. Unmentionable stuck to advice from books and magazines during the era, and Victorian Secrets made the case that trying to mimic the habits of everyday people from an era was the path to understanding. I suspect both methods have their pros and cons. A person from the year 2150 trying to read Cosmopolitan magazine would get a very different impression of our era than someone who walked around in our (now vintage) clothing. Both would have truth to them, but neither would be the whole picture.

I think this ties in to all these discussions about “popular opinion” or “the general consensus”, because I like the thought that sometimes there can be competing popular opinions on the same topic. Pride and Prejudice is still a favorite book for many girls because they both love the romance and the feel of the era, while also disliking all the rules and the lack of choice for women. While I’m sure there are some women who either love the Victorian Era or hate it, I’d actually suspect that many women love the thought of parts of it and dislike others. Given that most of us have very little exposure to it outside of a brief mention in history class and our English Lit curriculum, it is entirely possible that the likes and dislikes could be somewhat ill informed. This actually leaves a good bit of room for authors to truthfully claim “your love is misguided” and “so is your dislike”.

Yet another way popular opinion gets slippery when you try to nail it down.

By the way, weird fact about me: I’ve never actually read Pride and Prejudice, only Sense and Sensibility. I think my high school English teacher was getting a little bored with P&P by the time I got there, and I never picked it up on my own. I’ve seen two film versions and I read Bridget Jones Diary though, so I pretty much got the gist.

Just kidding librarian/English teacher friends, adding it to my spreadsheet now.

2 thoughts on “On Accurate Evaluation

  1. There is a similar phenomenon with boys and Medieval times. Because swords, I think. They would not have actually liked living in the 13th C. PJ O’Rourke states he can convince you you don’t want to live in another era with just two works: Modern Dentistry.

    (It doesn’t affect your argument, but Austen is more Regency.) There was a show a few years ago – or more than a few – in which a family lived as the the 17th C colonists did. They found it difficult. Our ancestors, even our recent ancestors, lived hard lives. 41% of the US was below the poverty line in 1949. Nearly everyone went hungry part of the year even in Victorian times, and some were hungry year ’round. Even to be in a favored class would not be enough. They suffered from pain, premature death, boredom, and fear more than even our poorest do now.

    One can get a sense of what their lives were like by reading their diaries and letters, or objective accounts by observers. Dickens and Olmstead have given me some clarity around what life was like for women as well as men. While it is interesting for women today to think about what life was like for women, the women themselves would not have thought that way, except for the very well-off and well-educated. Women did not think of themselves as a class as we do now, though the beginnings of this were stirring. They would have thought of the needs of their families – their health, their widowhood or abandonment, their safety – and then of people near themselves, in their villages with their various economies dependent on a good crop, a good price for manufactured goods, rights to trade, safe return of men at sea, on whom much depended.

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    • Oooooh….good point about medieval times.

      I think what always strikes me about history is how freaking long some of our worst tasks take. I’m not a fan of doing laundry, but really it’s a total of 15-20 minutes per load, and most of that is just putting it away. I can’t imagine having laundry as an all day affair.

      The idea of changing self-concept is interesting. I think it was Chuck Klosterman who noted that we can read about the Victorian Era and the idea that your family’s behavior could ruin your own marriage prospects, but none of us can actually really understand what that must be like. For all but the most extreme cases, we mostly judge individuals now rather than families. I have to imagine that impacts self-perception in ways we can’t really fathom.

      The second half of his observation btw was that the post-internet generation is going to lose the sense of what it’s like to think that no one thinks like you. He grew up in a small town in North Dakota and pointed out that you could feel like the only person in the world who didn’t like *insert popular TV show* because in your town, you might be the only one. There won’t be an equivalent going forward.

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