The world has gone wild over the video of Susan Boyle auditioning for “Britain’s Got Talent.” All over the internet, her triumphant rendition of “I Had a Dream” from Les Miserables has attracted the notice of millions, and become the occasion for an avalanche of easy modern-day moralizing: Don’t judge a book by its cover, witness the horror of our ageism/sexism/lookism, etc., etc., etc. The entire episode is being treated as a classic underdog tale, and a heartening reminder that great gifts can lurk in inauspicious places.
But in an increasingly secular and politically correct world, perhaps what too few of us have considered is this: What treatment would have been due Susan Boyle had her performance not been superb? What would have happened if her singing had been as undistinguished – as laughable, even – as her appearance and demeanor led the “Britain’s Got Talent” audience to expect? And what should have happened?
There’s no doubt that Susan Boyle cut a mildly ridiculous figure as she strode to center stage, with her unfashionable hair, frumpy dress, and bushy eyebrows. Witnessing the eye-rolling and sneers of the crowd as this slightly pathetic figure confessed her dream of becoming “as big as Elaine Page,” it’s clear that had she performed as the crowd had anticipated, she would have been mocked and humiliated, publicly, on a massive scale. And few of us would have thought twice.
Today, most of us have become sensitized – and rightly so – against deriding people for their race, gender, religion, ethnicity, creed or sexual orientation. That’s all to the good. But social pressure from the politically correct not to be deemed racist, sexist or homophobic only suppresses certain manifestations of a universal human urge to mistreat others that we deem somehow “below” us; it doesn’t address their source – that is, the darkness in the human heart.
Using political correctness as a moral compass designed to inject some civility into a secular world may protect individual members of certain designated-victim groups. But in contrast to the Judeo-Christian creed, it offers little guidance about what is due each and every individual, simply because she is a human being entitled to basic dignity – yes, even when she’s not bursting with youth, beauty or riches. Especially then.
As it turned out, there is much to admire about Susan Boyle: Her remarkable ability and the selflessness of her life, until recently spent caring for ailing parents. But even without a touching life story and a dazzling talent, she and her situation merited a little compassion. The hero of Jane Austen’s Emma, George Knightley, put it perfectly as he rebukes the heroine for her disrespectful treatment of a good-hearted but aging, garrulous and rather foolish old maid in their village:
Were she a woman of fortune, I would leave every harmless absurdity to take its chance, I would not quarrel with you for any liberties of manner. Were she your equal in situation—but . . . consider how far this is from being the case. She is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to; and, if she live to old age, must probably sink more. Her situation should secure your compassion.
After Knightley’s reproach, Emma’s conscience is awakened, and she is stricken with shame. But that was in the old, pre-“modern” England. Would it be as true today?