Topic: Sports & Entertainment

Misplaced Kindness and "American Idol"

Another “American Idol” audition period is coming to a close, and the question on everyone’s mind (besides “What is Paula Abdul on?” and “How short is Ryan Seacrest?”) is “What makes those caterwauling, off-key contestants believe they can not only sing, but sing professionally?”

The answer is “misplaced kindness.” In these often sad cases, “misplaced kindness” is a synonym for cruelty, despite the fact that it comes from parents, siblings, friends and employers, people who deeply care for those they are harming by nurturing delusions. Sometimes the misplaced kindness is more sinister, as in the case of the hopelessly untalented auditioner who protested that she had studied singing for eight years. She had studied, of course, with a fraud, a singing teacher who took her money and encouraged her to believe that she had a marketable gift that she did not. But her unscrupulous (or inexcusably tone-deaf) singing instructor caused no more damage than the cheering loved ones who deceived so many others who voluntarily put their egos in the path of Simon Cowell’s insults, Randy Jackson’s rude laughter and Paula’s eye-rolling for the camera.

Is misplaced kindness really unethical? It is. The only excuse for it is ignorance, but it is not ignorance of talent as often as it is ignorance of the true nature of the arts. Mothers won’t tell their children they can fly, because they just might jump off a building; they won’t hide all the mirrors from a plain daughter and convince her that she should enter a beauty pageant. But a mind-numbing number of people persist in the belief that becoming a star in the movies, recording industry or TV is just a matter of being in the right place at the right time…it’s easy. Sing? Heck, anyone can sing! Act? The only tough part is memorizing the lines! The most perfunctory research would teach them otherwise: performing is a hard, incredibly competitive, capricious occupation that defeats extraordinarily talented people. Yes, occasionally the public will adopt a William Hung as a kind of living joke to ridicule for his absurd pretensions, but such freak acts come along approximately once every three decades. Those rare anomalies can’t begin to excuse the legions of Americans who think nothing of praising their beloved bad actor or awful singer to the skies.

Americans are amazing in their willingness to offer opinions without knowledge or expertise. They will tell pollsters whether a criminal defendant is guilty without knowing anything about the law or the evidence. They will weigh in on the proper troop movements in Iraq, often without being able to identify the country on the map. They will sign petitions to preserve or over-turn Roe v. Wade without having ever read Roe v. Wade. Fortunately, such opinions generally receive attention only for the fact of them. No responsible public figure (admittedly, this phrase omits a large percentage of public figures) will blindly trust the judgement of a group that contains large percentages of people who believe in ghosts and psychics, disbelieve the sciences of astronomy, paleontology, geology and physics, and are more familiar with the names of Disney’s Seven Dwarfs than they are with the key provisions of the Bill of Rights. Their friends and families do trust them, however, which is why their uninformed and recklessly supportive endorsement of unrefined or imaginary abilities can do so much damage. And it is why it is so wrong.

There are certainly worse examples of misplaced kindness in American society. Prime among them are the schools and teachers who graduate semi-literate kids with high grades in the interest of preserving “self-esteem.” I will never forget the shocked look on the face of a college intern who once worked for me when I told her that she simply could not write; her memos for me were ungrammatical and incomprehensible. “But…I’ve always gotten As in English!” she said, crying. “Then your professors have lied to you,” I said. “And it’s not your fault.”

Whether the “American Idol” wannabe enablers are lying or simply expressing an opinion they are unqualified to offer, they are setting up tragedies for people they care about. Most of the tragedies are small ones; a moment of national humiliation, and, hopefully, awareness of the truth. But sometimes delusions die hard. People said Einstein was dumb, right? They told Harrison Ford he couldn’t act! One dreadful contestant pointed out that she could sing “better than Paris Hilton.” That’s true. But talk about a slim reed on which to build the hope of a career!

There’s an important distinction that must be made. While it is kind and responsible to tell someone that they cannot sing, it is wrong and foolhardy to tell anyone that he or she will never be able to sing. Human beings can accomplish astounding things when they are willing to work for them. Who would have believed that an asthmatic weakling like Teddy Roosevelt could become a boxer, a cowboy, and a President? Who in their wildest fantasy predicted that an unintelligible Austrian body-builder could become a top movie star, marry a Kennedy, and now be called Governor Schwarzenegger? Never sell the human spirit short, or presume to crush someone’s will to pursue a dream. That is a terrible thing. But almost as terrible is to delude a loved one into thinking the dream is within reach, when it is really far, far away at best. Telling someone he can’t sing well enough yet (or finding someone who is qualified to say so) is giving necessary and useful information by serving notice that there is a hard road ahead, if he chooses to follow it. Deceiving an aspiring performer into believing what isn’t true is an abuse of trust.

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