Tweet This

The worship of mediocrity

You know, there's really no nice way to say "I'm better than you." But that's exactly what I'm about to do, and some people are going to get it, and others are going to just think I'm a  horrible snob. If it makes the latter feel any better, I'm 100% sure that you're better than me, too. 

Perhaps not at all of the same things.

Here is a short list of things I suck at:

Math. My math skills are so bad (and my anxiety level so high) that my math skills are a publicly acknowledged family joke.

Sewing. In grad school, they assigned me to the costume shop. In two days, they had learned the error of their ways. I spent the semester ironing, steaming, sorting fabric, doing ANYTHING but actually sewing things. Because if I got near a sewing machine, disaster ensued.

Dancing. Elaine in Seinfeld. Enough said.

Running. I love to run, but I am bad at it. I lumber along. Pregnant women and people in wheelchairs pass me.  I still fantasize about running a marathon one day. (Don't wait for me. I'll catch up).

I'm willing to bet that a lot of people reading this are really good at one of the above. Much, much, better than me. I'm fine with that.

There are some things that I really love to do and am pretty good at, too . For instance, I'm a really good amateur cook.  I make up my own recipes, and play around and modify stuff I find online. Everybody wants to eat at my house for Thanksgiving.

But this does not make me a  chef. A chef trains extensively in knife skills, culinary techniques, thousands of food products and cuisines, and so much more. Compared to say, Jacques Pepin,  my kitchen play is the equivalent of someone enjoying bashing out the big note version of Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonato" on their tinkly home piano against Van Cliburn on the concert stage. No comparison.

I can watch Pepin's cooking shows (and I do). I can try to recreate his recipes (and I do). I can go online and watch YouTube videos about cooking techniques and try to copy them, practice them, get better (that I don't do. Too lazy). And I might even see some improvement from all that, but it is still not going to make me a chef. I would still have no business trying to open a five star restaurant,  or going on an entertainment competition show like Top Chef and representing myself as a great cooking talent.

Because I'm not. That is to say, I may actually have some talent in cooking, and some basic training, but this does not make me a chef. And if I were to represent myself as such publicly, real chefs who have put in real time in their education and training would be perfectly justified in scoffing at me. They would not be snobs for doing so. Even if the public at large had a chance to taste the delicious five-ingredient butternut squash soup I just made and liked it better than what you can get at Le Bernardin, that would not make me in any way equal to Eric Ripert in skill or knowledge. Nor does preferring Ripert's thinly shaved razor clam with lemon confit, piquillo pepper, baby zucchini, and pesto broth to my homey butternut squash soup make you a snob or an elitist. It just means you have an educated palate.

Which brings me to the fact that I'm better than you --- at least, quite a few of you. Statistically speaking, I am better than most of the world's population at singing opera. I live it. I study it. It's my job. When it comes to opera, vocal technique, and quite a number of related topics, I really do know what I'm talking about. And yes, some of it is subjective, but let's be real. In discussions about levels of skill and technical prowess, an opinion based on a person's individual tastes is not equally weighted to an opinion based on knowledge and training. To many people, that is going to make me a snob.

When did having (and using) education, discretion, and taste become elitist and snobby in the eyes of the general public? Once upon a time, learned people were looked up to by the general populace, their opinions sought after and valued.  Skill was prized and admired. Even a serious amateur who had made a detailed study of  his or her passion --- someone like a hardcore opera fan, for example, or the actor David McCallum (who plays the coroner Ducky on NCIS and prepared for his role so throroughly that he now lectures at medical conventions! He also was once a stage manager for Glyndebourne Opera Festival. Coincidence? I think not!) --- would be sought after for a more educated opinion on the topic at hand.

Nowadays, with easy access to ... well, just about everything ... and even easier access to voicing opinions in a public, widespread, and largely consequence-free manner, everyone seems to think they're an expert on everything, and that their opinion, no matter how uneducated or uninformed, is of equal importance and value. Everybody is somehow supposed to be equally important, equally talented, equally valid, and if you disagree with that, you're a BIG MEANIE. You're a snob and an elitist and probably a --shudder, gasp --- liberal.

Case in point: every single one of the latest child singing sensations the internet is gushing over.  I'm not going to go into why these kids, while cute and certainly possessing of some talent and probably better than most of their peers at singing opera, are actually nothing special in the great grand scheme of things, most likely damaging themselves, and are not, in fact artists.  That has been covered very well by people like Georgia Jamieson Emms and the Washington Post's pull-no-punches music critic, Anne Midgette. Thank you, ladies, you beat me to the punch.

Criticize one of those kids, no matter how gently, and you will get floods of comments about how mean, nasty, and bitter you are; and oh yes, let's not forget that you are jealous of the moppet.  How dare you hold a kid,  or a beauty queen, or someone with a hard luck story, who has stood up on national TV and performed an opera aria she learned off YouTube to any kind of standards of the genre? Isn't it enough that she's singing opera and she sounds good to those who have probably never been to one and think the likes of Katherine Jenkins and Sarah Brightman represent the epitome of the art form?

Of course, I'm going on about opera because that's my gig, and it seems like every time you turn around these days some prepubescent beauty or door-to-door magazine salesman is on some talent show wailing "O mio babbino caro" or "Nessun dorma" (poor Puccini always is the one taking the beating) with nary a clue as to diction or backstory, let alone a glimmer of real vocal technique.  I'm not denying the entertainment value of this. Heck, I enjoy watching those "So You Think You Can Dance?" type shows, but I wouldn't compare those contestants to Barishnykov or Nureyev or even whoever the hottest dubstepper might be.  I'm not qualified.

Point is, there is an unhealthy worship and almost savage defense of mediocrity in society today. If you call it out for what it is, you are lambasted as a snob. Talent does not equal skill (although raw, unskilled talent can be quite exciting); the fact that you personally enjoy something connotes neither that it is wonderful or terrible; and the fact that somebody knows more than you about a particular topic or is better than you at something and calls you on an uninformed opinion does not automatically make them a snob, an elitist, or a mean person.

My guess is that these people who get so incensed about someone critizicizing their raw-talent idols are taking it personally. My guess is that one of the things they're attracted to is the mythology of the overnight success, because they can fantasize about it happening to them, too.  People don't like it when you spit in their cornflakes, and these days, we all want to be special snowflakes. In fact, we've institutionalized it to a certain degree. ALL the kids have to get a medal, not just the ones who excel.

Also, civilized debate seems to be devolving into a lost art. It's quite difficult to have a civilized disagreement these days, at least on the Internet.

What a terrible, terrible idea to put mediocrity on a pedestal by defensively insisting that raw talent is just as good as developed artistry, or that everybody is equally abled in all things. What a terrible idea to insist that all opinions are created equal. At the risk of stating the obvious, it's dreadfully bad for us as a society to devalue education, intelligence, taste, wit, discretion, and reliable information. It's dreadful to glorify ignorance, especially if the main reason you're doing so is so that you personally won't feel inferior, and anyway, it doesn't work in the long term.

What can we do to combat this worship of mediocrity? For one thing, I think that if you have expertise in a subject, you should gently, kindly, with humor when possible, speak out when you encounter inflation of mediocre work in context of your area of expertise. I think we should let kids lose and fail sometimes so they can learn what they are good at and what they need to work at, and that some goals require a great deal of struggle and sacrifice to attain. I think we should stop saying things are good when they clearly are not, on pretext of not hurting someone's feelings. There are plenty of ways to be polite and supportive without lying.  I think we should discourage trashy and shallow entertainments (most of reality TV, for example) in favor of substance and quality. I think we should bring back arts education and recess in the schools, and encourage more kids to study math and science. And I think we should encourage respectful discourse, and respect of people who know what they're talking about, without allowing ourselves to be threatened by the fact that there exist in this world people who know more than we do about some things.

If these convictions make me a snob, then it's a title I am proud to wear.