Where discernment ends and bullying begins

Feb 18 2004 by Print This Article

Most famous people will expect the observation ‘They didn’t suffer fools gladly’ to feature in their obituaries. Entrepreneurs, chief executives, politicians and great artists are famous for being exacting in their standards, and high in the expectations of those who work for them. They are proud to have put down time-wasters and frauds – it is an allowable fault.

Personnel managers, by contrast, are often accused of being too indulgent towards a poor performer. Commercial reality surely demands the swiftest dismissal and the sharpest rebuff possible for those who are just not up to the mark. If that means that someone is humiliated from time to time – well so be it.

Recently The Times columnist Richard Morrison rounded on critics of the ‘Pop Idol’ judges to state that, far from being bullying, they were really too soft. The music industry could only maintain standards through the routine humiliation of aspirants. Otherwise, he warned, ‘the professionals would be no better than we pub-karaokeists and bathtub Sinatras,’ he concluded.

He related the story of a young violinist, whose parents had spent an estimated £30,000 on lessons. After only 20 seconds of an audition at a prestigious orchestra, the conductor told him to get out, adding ‘I don’t know why you bothered to take the instrument out of its case. Bye-bye’. Mr Morrison, though sympathetic to his acquaintance, concluded: ‘This weeding-out is ruthless, but essential.’

Well, up to a point. The trouble with this attitude is that it does confer infallibility upon the one making the judgement. It lacks discernment. It automatically blesses those in positions of power offering a negative opinion, irrespective of the merits of the case. It ignores the common situation where a savage put-down is the abuse of power, or the result of simple laziness. What can also happen is that a critic, manager or recruiter may simply enjoy the phrasing of a particular insult as it runs around in his head and he unleashes it in a perfectly gratuitous manner.

Such harshness merely deters the sensitive, rather than the less talented, probably explaining why contemporary fine art is dominated by thick-skinned publicists who cannot actually paint.

Some 150 years ago a young female author produced a wildly passionate, romantic work that was savaged by anonymous male reviewers in the literary journals of the day. She was devastated, according to contemporary accounts, and became withdrawn, refusing medical treatment for the ailments that befell her and dying at the tender age of 30, without producing any further published work.

I refer, of course, to Emily Bronte and Wuthering Heights. Doubtless, those reviewers felt that they were only upholding ‘standards’, but who remembers or thanks them now?

All those who are called upon to review another’s work – whether in performance appraisals, as critics, or as friends to those with amateur ambitions – have the duty to be specific and intelligent, rather than vague and insulting.

The conductor in the case above performed very much worse than the violinist, and I can say that without having heard a note. It is sheer childishness to offer no tangible information and dismiss the individual with nothing other than an insult. For all we know, Mr Morrison’s friend was the next Yehudi Menuhin, and the conductor a jealous soul who had only achieved his position through family connections.

There is a cultural myth related to all of this, which is that high achievers are supposed to be at least a little bit unpleasant. It makes them a ‘character’, many believe, if they are savage to someone, or cheat on their spouses or have tantrums from time to time.

Emily Bronte’s big sister is proof that this attitude is complete rot. Charlotte was one of the finest people ever to have lived, as well as one of the finest writers. At no stage in her life did she put her artistic endeavour ahead of her duty to others, yet she realised a peak of literary expression that those with greater ego and a more savage tongue could not.

Her correspondence is filled with the most acute and incisive analyses of the works of her day – great works by writers such as Thackeray, Gaskell and Austen, as well as less offerings. She never flinched from an intellectual judgement (she was not a great admirer of Austen, curiously enough) but never failed to express her view in a courteous manner, respecting the feelings of the subject.

It would be very much better for the human race if there were more Charlotte Brontes in the world and fewer boorish critics who think that they are promoting excellence by hurling insults like a boy throwing stones.


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