Taste

You can’t dispute it, people say. Everyone is entitled not only to his or her opinion (which is debatable) but to his or her own taste as well. You may like Norman Rockwell or Pop music, but I prefer Rembrandt and Beethoven. So it goes.

But is it true? Just because we hear these platitudes on every side doesn’t make them true. People cling desperately to all sorts of nonsense — especially these days. Let’s just ask whether there is such a thing as “good taste.” What would it amount to? Knowing that then perhaps we can talk intelligently about “bad taste.”

To begin with, good taste is a function of that thing I am always going on about: restraint. In art, for example, when the artist exhibits not only imagination and skill but also restraint, when a decorator doesn’t fall into the trap of “more is better,” but shows restraint in the arrangement of colors and shapes, one might contend this reflects good taste. Flaubert once said “discipline makes art of impulse.” That’s about it. But we could argue about this until the proverbial cows come home. You like what you like and I what I like. And we all know I am an intellectual snob, an elitist who thinks that everyone should be liberally educated. So there! Ignore what I say.

But take the following example where ESPN — in this case — shows a singular lack of restraint and, I would say, exhibits very bad taste.

One of the features of the ESPN sports broadcasts is the segment called “Not Top Ten.” These are supposed to be sports gaffs that occur during the week, things that just sort of happen and we find them funny. They are designed to make us laugh at human foibles. And they are, in fact, usually quite funny.

But recently ESPN chose to include in their list of “Not Top Ten” the crash of the “Sooner Schooner,” a smaller version of the covered wagons that took our ancestors West. It is the symbol, the mascot, if you will, of the Oklahoma football team and it races on the field before every game with the crowd cheering madly. In this case the schooner took too sharp a turn and the entire rig came off its base and threw the occupants, including a young woman, to the ground. Several people were hurt, though none seriously. In any case it was not funny. Humor stops when someone gets hurt. If there is a rock in the pie thrown in the face of the clown and he gets cut we do not laugh; if the person under whom the chair is removed as they try to sit hurts his spine, we do not laugh. In a word, we laugh until sympathy enters in. Humor demands distance and is an entirely intellectual response; emotions do not enter in — especially sympathy for another human being.

When the schooner fell over the crowd was aghast — as well it should be. But ESPN, in its wisdom, decided it was funny and they included it in their list of “Not Top Ten” for the week which they put forward as simply another humorous incident in a sporting event. But it was not.

Thus, I submit, we have here a clear case of bad taste on the part of ESPN. They showed a singular lack of restrain and tried to pass off the hurling to the ground of at least two people and the trashing of the schooner itself as a humorous event. It was not. And anyone who thought it was should make an appointment to have his or her head examined. As so should the producers at ESPN.

Show some restraint. Separate out those things that are genuinely funny (and which therefore do not involves the harm of humans or animals) and skip the events that show people being thrown to the ground while the crowd (which exhibited much greater restraint and good taste) looked on aghast.

Taste can be good or bad and we can quibble about art and music. But when people are hurt, it is not funny and it is in bad taste to include such an event in a list of seemingly funny events, designed to make people laugh, on this or any sports show.

Rewards And Such

As one who did time in academe — hard time in fact — I have always wondered why those in charge are so reluctant to give out awards and rewards for exceptional work. Those of us who taught, for example, knew who the hard workers and good teachers were. Everybody knew. But those folks were seldom, if ever, acknowledged in any way  — except by the students who tended to turn the whole thing into a popularity contest. I worked very hard, for example, and when I retired I received a framed certificate signed by the governor of Minnesota (or one of his toadies) thanking me for 37 years of loyal service. It was the same certificate that was handed out to all of us who retired at the same time throughout the state system, including one of my colleagues who taught the same courses with the same syllabi for years — only in the mornings, so he could spend the afternoons in his office downtown making real money. Eventually it occurred to me that this is because a reward draws attention to those few who are rewarded and is resented by those who might feel slighted.

That is to say, in fear that someone will take umbrage at the fact that they were passed by, those who deserve to be noticed are ignored. The sentiment here is clear and in some ways admirable: we should do nothing that makes a person feel bad. I suppose this is why so many who teach are reluctant to fail their students — though a friend of mine who taught in our small school in my town once told me he passed poor students along because he didn’t want to have to teach them again! In any event, the outstanding students and teachers who deserve to be noticed are ignored out of a somewhat distorted sense of justice that leads many to the conclusion that it is a form of discrimination.

But let’s give this a moment’s thought. Discrimination in itself is not a bad thing. We discriminate all the time when we choose the red wine over the white, or the steak over the hamburger, the Rembrandt over the Rockwell, Joseph Conrad over the latest pot-boiler. Discrimination used to be a sign of a well-educated, “discriminating” person. That person can choose good books, music, and art and avoid things that might have little or no real value, things that will surely rot his brain. It was supposed to be a good thing. But now, in our postmodern age, we insist that there is no such thing as a “good” book or a “good” paining or composition. There are just things that are written, painted, and played, things people like. It’s all relative. With the absence of standards and the push to greater equality, including the refusal to discriminate on the basis of race, creed, color (or ability), we live in a world awash with confusion about what is and what is not to be selected as worthy of our attention and effort. Anything goes. Words like “great” and “excellent” are no longer allowed in the name of political correctness which insists that it’s all a matter of opinion.

Interestingly enough, this hasn’t happened in athletics. Though there is a push among those connected with youth athletics to avoid keeping score and to give every participant a trophy at the end of the season (!), by and large those few who stand out in sports are recognizes and praised for a job well done. Perhaps this explains the craziness of those in our culture when it comes to collegiate and professional sports. At last, they seem to think, we can point out the outstanding athletes and discuss over a beer (or three) who were the GREAT ones! We don’t have to worry about political correctness, because everyone knows that some athletes are better than others. There are winners and there are losers and in sports we side with the winners and stand by the losers hoping that they will soon become winners — or because they are our sons and daughters.

My point, of course, is that we have a double standard. We are willing to recognize and talk about greatness on sports — and even allow that losing may teach vital lessons — but we refuse to do so in every other walk of life because we might hurt someone’s feelings. It never seems to occur to us that the “hurt” may become a motivator to push the one who fails to be recognized to work harder in order to become recognized sometime later. Losers who hope to become winners, if you will. It applies in sports, and it most assuredly applies in life as well.