Monday, March 16, 2009
For some inexplicable reason I have been watching "American Idol" this season. Other than some of the preliminary rounds with all the awkward, tone deaf William Hungs believing they can actually win a recording contract, I've pretty much ignored the program. This year the nephew of one of my husband's patients, Danny Gokey, is on the show, so I guess that's the curiosity. What I've discovered is that the real point of the series isn't for the contestants to win. No, it's for the public to judge them and not just with a weekly vote. Idol bashing has risen to the status of a new public sport. Each contestant is run through the ridicule mill facing criticism about wardrobe, dance, tattoos, voice, facial hair, hair, hair color, and personality. Simon Cowell doesn't even figure in these slam downs. Normally thoughtful and rational people suddenly become nasty, back-biting fiends when they discuss the show.
Reality shows in general bring out the armchair critic in us. We have an opinion about every aspect of someone's else life just because we can. Having "The Bachelor" in our living rooms one hour a week for twelve weeks gives us the right to decide who his wife should be. We can get as upset about someone getting voted out of the tribe as we would if it were our own mother being sent to the gulags. So perhaps it is no surprise that we find ourselves offering up our critiques on an eight year old's ability to pass under pressure or a coach's choices for the starting line-up. We have been validated as experts. After all, the fate of America's Idol rests in our hands!
We live in a media world where people's fates can be decided with the beep of a buzzer or a cell phone call to the number on the screen. We zap our enemies instantly on the video screen. We can order anything (and I mean that literally) on Ebay with a few clicks of our mouse. So it's no wonder we think we have the right to offer running commentary on our child's soccer game.
Stand on the side lines of any soccer game and you will hear a chorus of opinions freely and loudly expressed. We criticize the opponents. We criticize our fellow players. We criticize the coaches. We criticize the referees. We even criticize the parents. You've heard the comments and, admit it, you've made the comments. "He can't pass." "She's a ball hog." "I swear I could coach better than he can." And those are the just the observations I can repeat on a family web site. The more passionate we become, the more X-rated the vocalizations grow. We forget we aren't in our living room shouting at the screen, "He's an idiot for picking her." When we're at the soccer field we're in a crowd of people who actually love "the idiot" and think he's doing a bang up job.
Most players are too young and too innocent to be the object of our judgment. How often have you spent the ride home in the car critiquing the entire game and judging the individual player performances? Such evaluations can model for our impressionable children undesirable behaviors. They are learning to aim the magnifying glass at others, rather than on themselves. And if you think those comments don't spread beyond the car, then you live in a fool's paradise. Of course sometimes we make our comments public. Sideline chatter regularly turns to assessments of the players, frequently focusing on the opposition. The problem is that in the close confines those comments might be overheard by the parent of our target. Those stinging remarks can affect relationships not to mention stirring up immediate conflict. I've seen my share of sideline battles brought on by an overheard observation. I came close to erupting when someone accused my eleven year old son of "flopping." I was surprised at how much I was personally offended by the remark. It showed me the power of words.
We grow up hearing "sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me," which is a noble concept and totally unrealistic. Words hurt us all the time. We have all been the object of some form of ridicule which you think would give us pause when dishing it out. But our culture and the sense that in this huge world we are somehow anonymous embolden us. We may express our views in hushed tones under our breath to the person next to us and believe it won't go any further, but the grape vine curls everywhere. Our words have tremendous power to harm. While we'll never be able to totally stop the urge to criticize, we can all try to be more mindful of where and when we exercise our expertise. So keep delivering those reality show verdicts. After all, Simon Cowell's balance sheet depends on your continued disparagement of the contestants.