Friday, March 11, 2011

The New, Improved "American Idol"

What is the right attitude for a parent, a leader, a manager, a mentor, a teacher, or a coach?

In certain cultures young people are required to show filial piety toward their elders. It begins with their parents, but they are told to show it to teachers, mentors, managers, and coaches.

But, what then is the proper attitude for an older person to show toward someone younger? In the cultures that value filial piety the corresponding virtue is benevolence or magnanimity.

In our culture rebelliousness is often considered to be more normal than filial piety. And oppression is also considered more natural than benevolence.

Yet, this year’s “American Idol” shows us that benevolence is not only alive and well, but that it can score good ratings too.

For this viewer, the program has improved because the judges, Randy Jackson, Jennifer Lopez, and Steven Tyler are such wonderful examples of the virtue of benevolence.

Their example stands out more clearly since it follows upon Simon Cowell’s last season, where Cowell added a childish petulance to his normally sarcastic and arrogant style.

I do appreciate the fact that if your name is S. Cowell you will naturally have a permanent scowl on your face, but Cowell made a name for himself for humiliating the young people who were performing on the show. Since no one in America really knew who he was, he must have felt that he needed to create a brand and to prove something.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with witty repartee. And there is nothing intrinsically wrong with excoriating criticism. But there is something very wrong with beating up on people who are half your age, and who are in no way your competitors.

Cowell’s attitude had a certain entertainment value when he first made the scene, though the show probably owes more of its success to Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood than it does to Simon Cowell.

As shticks go, Cowell's had long since grown tired. To make a name for himself by bullying a group of highly vulnerable young people is simply contemptible.

While Randy Jackson has always stood out for being fair and gracious toward the contestants, his virtue was overshadowed by Cowell’s bad character.

As for the other past panelists, Paula Abdul was really just a foil for Cowell. When she was coherent, she tended to throw out the same empty praise after every performance.

When you say the same nice thing to everyone, you are not benevolent. You are a recorded announcement.

Kara Dio Guardi was nice enough and knowledgeable enough, but she is not a legend in the music business. Young people are not going to bed at night dreaming of singling for Kara Dio Guardi.

Only people who have reached the top can credibly offer benevolence.

Ellen DeGeneres was also pleasant, but since she did not know very much about music or the music business, her views and her attitude were discounted from the beginning.

This year’s new judges, Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler have been exemplary in their gracious benevolence toward the contestants. Joined with the gracious and highly knowledgeable Randy Jackson, they form a judging panel that manifests cordiality and congeniality.

If the judges set the mood and the tone, the good behavior of the panel seems to have rubbed off on the contestants.

Of course, Randy Jackson, Jennifer Lopez, and Steven Tyler are giants in the music business. Many of the contestants this year have been positively awestruck to be singing for the three.

No one was ever awestruck to be singing for Paula Abdul.

More than that, the panelists are so successful that they have nothing to prove. Knowing that they have nothing to prove, they act as though they are there merely to help the contestants. They are not there to show off or attract attention to themselves.

They are extending a helping hand, not competing for attention or plaudits. None of them, I would venture, needs the fame or the money.

As ethical precepts go benevolence has pride of place in Confucius, but also in Aristotle. Interestingly, the concept reflects the harmony of the natural order.

Young people grow up and replace their elders. Their elders are duty-bound to help them along, to encourage them to be and to do their best.

After all, if you believe in your business, your community, your country, or your family… you want it to be well-led and well-managed after you depart the scene.

And you will depart the scene one day, not because someone has overthrown your authority or usurped your power, but because you will simply have grown old.

Benevolence is difficult to understand because most people, when they hear about it, tend to see it as just another form of charity. Hopefully the example of the Idol judges will make clear that the concept has nothing to do with charity.

Unfortunately, our culture does not value filial piety or benevolence. It does not teach children to respect and revere the authority of their elders, and it does not really teach old people to act as though they are there to help, not to hinder the progress of youth.

When an older person gives some advice, young people are apt to ignore it. They will think that the older person is regretting his lost youth or is being a killjoy.

Many older people will refrain from offering advice, because they are not sufficiently confident in their own success and because the therapy culture has told them that young people need to learn by themselves.

Our culture is based on a fiction where the young and the old are in permanent conflict. The story says that the elderly have acquired wealth and power by corrupt means and that, once they have it, they refuse to give it up without a fight.

Your manager is not there to help you along; he is trying to keep you from taking what is rightfully his.

According to this theory, the rich and the powerful are in the business of repressing the young, the disadvantaged, and the powerless. They will never extend a helping hand; they are much more likely to slap others down.

This leads young people to become rebellious. Only by staging a violent rebellion will they ever be able to move up the social or corporate hierarchy.

Thanks to our therapy culture we tend to think that intergenerational conflict is the rule and that cooperation is a ruse.

It is a story like another, though one that, thanks to Freud and his acolytes, is presented to us as a scientific truth.

In the cultures that practice them, filial piety and adult benevolence are not presented as scientific fact. They are presented as ethical principles.

In the West, adolescent rebelliousness and adult oppression are presented, not as moral failings, but as normal human behavior.

If we want to explore these points, we can refer to the wonderful example set by the now-famous Tiger Mom, Prof. Amy Chua.

Ask yourself this: Was Tiger Mom exhibiting benevolence when she forbid her daughters to have play dates or try out for the school play? Was she being benevolent when she forced them to keep working on their music until they got it right?

Does her ferocious will for them to succeed represent Confucian benevolence, or is it simply child abuse?

Does Tiger Mom want her daughters to do and to be their best? Is she willing to do everything in her power, to give of her time and energy, to ensure that they grow up to be disciplined, focused, and happy?

Tiger Mom is clearly not one of those parents who are threatened by their children’s success. She is not terrified that her children will outdo her, thus, make her look bad. She refused to sit idly by while her children did not do their best.

Tiger Mom wanted her daughters to excel… whether they like it or not. She was not threatened by their success. Clearly, she is a model of Confucian benevolence.

When American parents avoid rigorous discipline because they want their children to be well-rounded, fulfilled, and brimming over with self-esteem, they feel that they are being benevolent. But are they really?

Do they expect the best from their children or do they simply act as though whatever the child does is fine.

These parents care less for actual achievement than for feeling good about yourself regardless. Instead of doing everything to help their children succeed, they declare themselves to be contented no matter how badly the child does.

If parents believe that adolescents are normally rebellious, they will tolerate insolence, impudence, and bad manners. Again, does this attitude encourage a child to be his best or does it allow him to be less than his best?

Truth be told, most American parents would do anything for their children. Unfortunately, they have been told by people who pretend to be experts that the self-esteemist approach is best for bringing up happy and healthy children.

The notion wears the cloak of science, but it is really a program that produces mediocrity and bad character.


Therapy Culture said...

RKV, I will never understand this resentment of old people receiving pension and social security. The old men and women I know worked hard their entire lives and are now living on "fixed incomes" of pensions and social security that are not very high.

Women who were housewives for several decades don't receive any pension, not even from their husbands if their husbands are dead.

I know several old widows who live off of very little social security and often have to downsize their lifes and move into cheaper (and more dangerous) neighborhoods when their husbands die.

You want to deny these little old ladies the small amount of social security that they get to pay a modest rent and eat rice and beans?

What do you suggest for them - homelessness?

Philomena said...

Pretty helpful data, lots of thanks for your post.