Topic: Sports & Entertainment
William Hung and the Ethics of Ridicule
In the 1930s, New York socialite Florence Foster Jenkins rented out Carnegie Hall so the public could listen to her massacre opera arias. People came in droves, applauded politely, encouraged her delusion that she could actually sing, then went home and laughed themselves sick. Thirty years later, a grandmother named Elva Miller rode her off-key, arrhythmic renditions of rock hits like “It’s Been a Hard Day’s Night” to record deals, appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show, rock concert appearances, and genuine pop culture stardom. The only difference between her and Mrs. Jenkins is that Mrs. Miller’s audiences didn’t wait to get home before they guffawed at her absurd performances. Today, a cheerily atonal young man named William Hung has become a momentary star as the result of his spectacularly inept audition for the theater-of-cruelty TV show “American Idol.” Hung has sung his trademark song “She Bangs” at basketball half-time shows and TV programs, and now, like Elva Miller, is moving on to recordings and a concert tour. He is making money, becoming famous, and undoubtedly having the time of his life.
How can there be an ethical problem with this?
Maybe there isn’t. Using rewards of money and notoriety to encourage individuals to subject themselves to ridicule has a long history in this and other cultures, and the ethical argument in defense of the practice is straightforward: everybody gets what they want, and nobody is harmed. Consider Mrs. Miller. By all accounts she had the time of her life becoming a “camp” icon, and was genuinely moved by the ironic applause lavished on her by teenagers after she butchered their favorite songs. Surely it cannot be unethical to make someone happy especially rich and happy.
This argument didn’t save the “freak shows,” of course. Their harm was that their very existence offended the people who had no part in them as spectators, participants, or exhibitors. These critics felt they were wrong because they degraded the culture; they were wrong because to pay another human being to allow others to gawk at his or her deformity was simply reimbursing someone for the loss of their dignity, a supposedly priceless commodity. These arguments ultimately made too many people feel ashamed about attending the shows, which are now all but extinct, much to the annoyance of the performers themselves.
Should we feel guilty about laughing at William Hung? If the Golden Rule is our ethical standard here, it is an awkward fit. Should you only “do unto others what you would have them do unto you” when the others feel the same about the conduct as you do? Most of us would not want to have our musical ineptitude broadcast for the happy derision of millions. William Hung, however, apparently feels differently, which would seem to change the ethical considerations unless he does not feel differently.
This is the ethical sticking point with William Hung, as it was with Florence Foster Jenkins and Mrs. Miller An audience’s enjoyment of his caterwauling depends on its belief that he is laboring under the delusion that he is good. That is what makes him deliciously ridiculous. But if he is truly clueless, then he has not truly consented to his public humiliation, even though he is being rewarded for it. Thus we have an ethical Catch 22. It might be ethically acceptable to pay someone to surrender his or her dignity, as long as the individual knows that it is being surrendered. Anna Nicole Smith, for example, willingly accepted payment to allow her aimless existence as a blowsy, bloated, perpetually groggy pin-up on-the-skids be documented on the E! cable channel for those ill enough to want to watch it. But in the case of Hung, Miller and Jenkins, letting them in on the joke renders it unfunny. Once they know they are embarrassingly untalented, even if they are still willing to perform no one will want to watch them. These people are in demand only as fools, you see. Once they have been enlightened, they are just lousy singers.
We do not know if William Hung would willingly surrender his dignity for some fame, fortune, and a place in pop culture footnotes next to Elva Miller. It is even possible that, as was suggested of Jenkins and even Ed Wood, the comically inept director of camp film classics like Plan Nine from Outer Space, that he is weaving a brilliant scam on the world, feigning innocent unawareness when his act is really a carefully calculated sham. Possible, but not likely. The kind, respectful, and ethical response to amusingly hopeless performers like Hung is to try to make them see that they cannot do that to which they aspire, and not to derive enjoyment from their delusions. When we pay people to unwittingly surrender their dignity, we are deceiving them. Hong believes he is being rewarded because people like to hear him sing. He is really being rewarded because people want to use him as an object of ridicule. He hasn’t, to our knowledge, consented to that. Without his informed consent, Hung is being mistreated.
Even if Hung does fully understand what he is selling, this is ethical thin ice like the side-shows, “dwarf bowling,” and “The Anna Nicole Show”. Paying people to surrender their dignity presumes that dignity destruction is an ethically defensible activity, and it is not. It is not even when those whose dignity is being destroyed gleefully, smilingly, or perhaps desperately, aid and abet the process.