Standing Ovations & "Discrimination"

Many years ago, when all my grown children were still minors, one of them wanted to know why I seldom said that anything they did was good. My answer was approximately, “You’re intelligent and talented, and you’ve had many advantages. I expect the merely good from you as a matter of course. If you do better than that, then I’ll be the first to let you know.” Perhaps I was too hard on them, but that was the answer I’d gotten from my father. But my answer clearly didn’t crush them, or they survived the devastation of not having a father who praised everything, because they’ve all turned out to be successful and productive, and they seem to be reasonably happy in life.

As some of my readers know, I’m married to a professional singer who is also a university professor and opera director. She has made the observation that these days almost any musical or stage play, whether a Broadway production in New York, a touring Broadway production, a Shakespeare festival play, or a college production, seems to get a standing ovation… unless it is so terrible as to be abysmal, in which case the production merely gets enthusiastic applause. The one exception to this appears to be opera, which seldom gets more than moderately enthusiastic applause, even though the singers in opera are almost invariably far better performers than those in any stage musical, and they don’t need body mikes, either. Maybe the fact that excellence still has a place in opera is why I’ve come to appreciate it more as I’ve become older and more and more of a curmudgeon.

My wife has also noted that the vast majority of students she gets coming out of high school these days have almost all been told through their entire lives that they’re “wonderful.” This is bolstered, of course, by a grade inflation that shows that at least a third of some high school senior classes have averages in excess of 3.8.

In a way, I see the same trend in writing, even while I observe a loosening of standards of grammar, diction, and the growth of improbable inconsistencies in all too many stories. I’ve even had copy-editors who failed to understand what the subjunctive happens to be and who believed that the adverb “then” was a conjunction [which it is most emphatically not]. Matt Cheney notwithstanding “alright” is not proper English and shouldn’t be used, except in the dialogue of someone who has less than an adequate command of the language, but today that means many, many characters could use it.

At the same time, I can’t help but continue to reflect on the change in the meaning of the word “discrimination.” When I was growing up, to discriminate meant to choose wisely and well between alternatives. A person of discrimination was one of culture and taste, not one who was prejudiced or bigoted, but then, maybe they were, in the sense that they were prejudiced against those aspects of society that did not reflect superiority and excellence.

But really, does everything merit the equivalent of a standing ovation? Is excellence measured by accomplishment, or have we come to the point of awarding standing ovations for the equivalent of showing up for work? Can “The Marching Morons” of Cyril M. Kornbluth be all that far in our future?