We Dislike What We Don’t Understand

Personal preference is a part of what makes us all unique. We all have different likes and dislikes. But could we dislike things simply because we don’t understand them?

The philosopher John Stuart Mill theorises that if one has experienced both higher and lower pleasures then they will always choose the higher pleasure. One would always choose listening to Chopin over watching reality TV. I don’t think this has been demonstrated to be true unless a person truly understands the “higher pleasure”. For example, if one is well educated in the piano and understands all the subtle techniques that the average person will miss and the years upon years of hard work and training to get to this level then it seems natural that one would prefer Chopin to Jersey Shore.

People who understand any particular thing always enjoy it more than people who do not. Someone who understands the physical chess of jiu-jitsu will be stimulated by the techniques and genius employed by the athlete. The person who has never been exposed to jiu-jitsu will see two people aggressively cuddling on the ground.
We can apply this idea to anything. For example, I don’t like cricket. To me it seems unnecessarily long and drawn out. But I have friends who love cricket. They have explained some of the subtleties of the sport to me so that I can at least appreciate how much technique and exhaustion is involved. I still don’t like cricket but I also still have absolutely no understanding of the rules or what makes a good game or strategy and what good technique looks like. I like sports like MMA and I have trained both a little Muay Thai and a little Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I also understand the rules and, for the most part, know what is happening when I watch it in real time. I know how much time, talent and dedication it takes to achieve such a high level of skill and I love to see that skill tested against someone else who also has put in the same. My understanding of cricket pales in comparison to my understanding of MMA. So naturally the enjoyment of watching cricket also pales in comparison to my enjoyment of watching MMA.

We can derive a lot of enjoyment from something we watch or do simply by understanding that thing. But specifically when it comes to things we do for entertainment rather than things we have to participate in. I like to think I understand quite a lot about my job. I know how to do it, I know how to find errors and I know how to investigate when things go wrong. But I don’t particularly enjoy any of that process at all because it is not something I would choose to do for fun or entertainment. It is a requirement.
When we focus on the things we do for enjoyment then understanding is a prerequisite for enjoyment. If you don’t understand what good writing is then you won’t understand what makes George Orwell so fantastic and, at times, poetic. You also won’t have any interest reading to begin with. Many people don’t like mathematics, or at least say they don’t, and many people have not the slightest clue how to perform complicated equations. Yet almost everyone who has a deep understanding of mathematics finds it enjoyable and even considers equations like E=mc2 to be beautiful.

There will always be things we don’t like for reasons other than understanding. Maybe someone can appreciate the skill in MMA but find the sight of blood immensely off-putting. Maybe someone can truly appreciate good writing and still not enjoy reading Orwell and someone can understand how skilled Jimmy Page is and still not enjoy rock music. But if we know that, we are more likely to enjoy something. If we understand it then we can find out what things we dislike because that is truly our opinion and what things we dislike simply because we don’t understand them. So much of what we do, say, like and dislike is a mystery to us, especially ourselves, but the more reasons we can attribute, through self examination, to the unconscious actions of ourselves, the more control we have. We don’t have to be trapped in the wind of our likes and dislikes when we can realise that we simply don’t understand something so we don’t have to dislike it. The more we know about ourselves and why we do things the more autonomy we have over ourselves.

“The unexamined life is not worth living” – Socrates, Plato’s Apology.



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