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One of my all-time favorite movies is “Ratatouille,” which is about chefs (both human and otherwise) in a Parisian gourmet restaurant who contend with the sharp reviews of a food critic named Anton Ego. I recently rewatched it, for probably the seventh time — though it was my first since starting as an opinion writer. This time, a different part of the movie stuck out in particular. I found myself replaying Ego’s speech toward the very end of the film. The once-biting critic — after seeing the unexpected source of genius behind an incredible dish of, yes, ratatouille — comes to a new realization about his role in the world:
“In many ways, the work of the critic is easy — we risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and theirselves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read.”
The same goes for people like myself and others who publish opinion articles. When you’re writing one of these, it’s far easier to come up with criticism than praise. Opinion writers look for controversy, and then don’t hesitate to pile on when they see a fumble.
It has something to do with the fact that people like myself live by the pen. Regular columnists write on a schedule; every other Wednesday, they have to look for a complaint to lodge about the world, about other people, about campus. And there’s usually plenty of subject matter available, if one thinks hard enough. Occasional op-ed writers aren’t much different. At The Crimson, somebody has to write an op-ed each day, and when you sign up for a slot as an Editorial Board member, you usually try to come up with something interesting to say — if only for your own satisfaction (because let’s face it, no op-ed writer wants to write a boring article).
Which is not to say that the criticism made in these pages is not valid. But the tradeoff is that in the process of finding criticism, it becomes easy to miss the bright spots, and to look for how the glass is half empty. And this doesn’t just apply to opinion writers — every one of us has done this, probably regularly.
Often, these criticisms become self-perpetuating in a way; we all learn to regurgitate the same few. It’s easy to instinctively criticize administration decisions before considering what their decision constraints actually were. When did we last actually sit down and think through that? And how many of us, as first-years, criticized Harvard students going into management consulting, without understanding in detail what they do or why? (Full disclaimers: I don’t have a particularly great love for the University’s administration, nor will I enter management consulting.) But I certainly am guilty as charged.
I’ll let you in on a secret. I actually wrote this article after watching “Ratatouille” while struggling with writer’s block; you caught me. But, quite conveniently, Anton Ego’s not wrong. We can all be a little less harsh on those who submit themselves — often involuntarily or accidentally — to our judgment. Maybe, God forbid, we can even occasionally assume best intentions from other people.
Normally, I might give this kind of article a zinger of a final sentence, so you’d think this opinion writer was extra clever, and by extension, that my criticism was also kind of clever. Today, though, I’ll simply submit the idea that we can use the absence of opinion articles in the next few weeks to recognize that every new day doesn’t have to come with a new piece of criticism. After all, life as a student at Harvard College could be a whole lot worse. It’s likely the case that the glass we’re looking at is probably 99 percent full — and always has been.
Andrew W. Liang ’21 is a Social Studies concentrator living in Adams House.
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