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No More American Idol

No More American Idol

Our society thrives on embarrassing others. It’s time to stop.


Imagine what the world would look like if the news media and popular culture would carefully observed the Torah's commandment not to embarrass someone else in public. Our Sages actually compare it to murder, noting that when someone is embarrassed all the blood drains from their face.

Many of the daytime talk shows and reality TV would be gone. Even American Idol would cease. The Star and The National Enquirer, People magazine and US would likely fold. Airwaves would go silent and newspapers would shrink even further than they have already.

Of course this is a fantasy. We've become a society that thrives on embarrassing others – it's entertainment! A world where reporters complete to find the juiciest tidbit about a celebrity.

We embarrass others without even blinking an eye.

In the process, we all pay a price. We lose our sensitivity – and don’t even notice. We embarrass others without even blinking an eye. We hurt relationships, we destroy communities. And we aren’t even aware of what we’re doing. We’ve become immune. We take that way of conversation, that sense of humor, that meanness, for granted.

And it’s up to us to turn the tide. While the Torah prohibits all forms of embarrassing others, some seem particularly egregious: teacher-student, parent-child, and husband-wife (or vice versa) come to mind.

Teachers: The few teachers who embarrass their students give all others a bad name. They have the power to shape young souls and any humiliation of their pupils is an abuse of their authority, with the potential for long-term disastrous consequences.

I’m still kicking myself that I didn’t confront the high school teacher who told my daughter that her question was like that of a 3rd grader. Aren’t we supposed to encourage questioning? Ethics of Our Fathers teaches us that a bashful person can’t learn. I comfort myself with the rationalization that I don’t think my daughter was hurt by it (except perhaps in her loss of respect for the teacher) because she had enough support at home and from her friends to recognize how inappropriate his response was. She had enough confidence to ignore him. But what about the girls who don’t?

Parents: Unfortunately parents are notorious for embarrassing their children in public. Some of it seems so innocent: “Play piano for the guests.” “Show them how you speak French.” Yet it takes a toll. Our children are not circus monkeys.

Some parents think it’s cute to tell stories about their children’s past adventures. But the kids frequently find those tales utterly humiliating. We should not use our children’s lives as conversational gambits or sources of amusement.

Obviously, the worst type of parent-child humiliation includes actual insults, yelling and constant berating. All the ways in which parents compare their child’s behavior to others, attack them for actions, grades or words or make them feel “less than” are in violation of this Torah prohibition.

Marriage: I heard a radio talk show host once suggest that the worst thing one spouse could do to another was to humiliate them publicly. It’s possible there are other behaviors that make it onto the “worst” list but this is certainly up (or down) there. We can start with yelling at your spouse. Whether in public or private, this is a humiliation. We move on to insults, cutting remarks, nit-picking, and even sometimes teasing (which frequently contains a hurtful truth). All of these behaviors embarrass our spouses, hurt them and our relationship.

Maybe everyone’s doing it. Maybe your wife laughs when you poke fun at her. But inside she’s crying.

We’re not used to living with this level of sensitivity. We’re not used to a world where it’s better to shade the truth than embarrass someone. We’re not used to tailoring our speech to the needs of others, to being self-censoring. We’re not used to celebrating and reinforcing the dignity of the human being.

If we really think about it we would see that ultimately the person we’re embarrassing the most is ourself!

March 13, 2010

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Visitor Comments: 32

(31) Anonymous, March 31, 2011 12:10 AM

American Idol Should GO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

In 7th grade I was embarresed to go up and read a paper so why should American Idol stay on the air I think American Idol SHOULD GO FOREVER!!! Also I wish for the best in Japan.

(30) Liz, March 18, 2010 8:40 AM

My whole life I was very sensitive to humiliation and embarassment. For example I refused to watch scenes in movies where they somehow humiliated somebody. This characteristic has proven to be endlessly entertaining to my family. Whenever I try skip such a scene (by walking out of the room), I am being called a coward and over-sensitive. It also made a great table-story to tell our guests. After some years I started believing them that I was abnormal and too sensitive... I always thought I was the only one with this "feature" and couldn't understand why I didn't enjoy shows that everyone else seemed to, and I was very glad to find this article. Thanks!

(29) Anon, March 18, 2010 3:39 AM

American Idol is a good example

@Anon It's irrelevant that contestants go on the show on their own volition. The main appeal of the first half of the season is watching people who can't sing get put down and ridiculed. The point is that the majority of Americans take pleasure and derive entertainment from watching others be embarrassed.

(28) Anonymous, March 18, 2010 12:50 AM

Don't even try to defend those who are being ridiculed!

Thank you so much for this much needed article. I've just lived a very aggravating situation at work. The organization I work for has just hired someone, a very capable and nice person. The problem is that there were 2 people competing for the job; we knew the other person very well from a previous and temporary appointment he had with us. Team members, who all had their say in this hiring, were not unanimous, which is OK. The problem is that I've discovered along the way that our boss had never had any intentions to hire our ex-colleague. He'd even said a few weeks ago so to s.o. I know outside the organization. This recruitment process was all fake! I understand it as a setup to hire someone in particular while making it look like we made the decision. The result was that our ex-colleague, who really believed he had a chance, was not only turned down: he was judged inadequate, insufficiently qualified, and was told so, by those who had a role to play in the hiring process. As a member of the recruiting team, I've seen all this unfold for several weeks, having private info I couldn't share with my co-workers as to our boss's prejudice. In order to give that guy a real chance, I realize now that I've tried to defend and protect s.o. who couldn't be protected from ridicule and subsequent harm. And I've also realized, when I saw some of my co-workers giving me the cold shoulder, that I have made a fool of myself in their eyes. Not only is it OK to ridicule others and use them but, what's more, it's NOT OK to try to take their side. Tonight, I am very sad and I feel that I have been ridiculed myself.

(27) Aviva, March 17, 2010 7:56 PM

American Idol is THE example

The reason why this example is so poignant is that it describes our society's desire for this type of discourse. We like watching people be told "how it really is" to the applause of a large live crowd, not to mention that it's on national television. While they did sign up for the anticipated humiliation, the participants' willingness to be subjected to it is just another point to Mrs. Braverman's article. Participants feel that it is okay to be publicly humiliated if it will get them to the singing contract or if it will help them to learn. Imagine the show without the humiliation. Imagine that the performers were given private feedback, but only a public score from 1-10. It would be pretty boring television, no? This is a great article and I hope that we will all recognize that our acceptance of this attitude of teasing and humiliation is detrimental to our relationships and to how we view other people.

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