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The Simon Cowell Syndrome

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | November 06, 2010

"Criticism, like rain, should be gentle enough to nourish a man's growth without destroying his roots."
Frank A. Clark

I think we all know that reality T.V. is here to stay. From the early days of "Survivor" to more recent renditions like "America's Got Talent," people carry out roles in quasi-scripted or completely unscripted ways in front of cameras and, at times, live television. There is always something unpredictable that takes place, but I guess that's part of the charm. 

One of these shows which has caught the attention of Evie and me has been "American Idol." Although it has been running since 2002, it has only been the last few years that we have been watching. 

Each season, a team of three judges travels to major cities to allow contestants up to age 28 to compete by singing before them. The judges review each performance and select the best performers, who then begin a process of additional performances over the next weeks and months to find the best vocalist in the competition. 

The judges continue narrowing the participants until the finalists are chosen. From then on, each week the performers sing and the judges critique the performances, but from then to the end of the competition when the winner is identified, it is America who votes and makes the decision of who should stay and who should go home. 

Early in the competition multiple vocalists perform with extremely marginal talent. Many claim they have been told all their lives how talented they are. Some of them are downright painful to watch. They speak of big dreams to be the next "American Idol" but their performance is hardly anything short of a nightmare. 

The most famous judge has been Simon Cowell. Although his tenure on the show is now over, I would like to reflect on the role he has had. Often the other judges try to coat their comments with a measure of grace and charm. At times they affirm something positive even when it is hard to do so. 

But Simon Cowell rarely minces his words. He can be sarcastic. He can be insulting. He can be demeaning. But he also can be encouraging and funny and helpful. He is that judge that people seem to readily love to hate. 

But most of the time, even if you dislike how he says it, Simon Cowell is quite accurate with his critique of the quality of the performance. If you can get past some of the negative baggage he brings, what he actually says is often right. 

I thought of Simon Cowell when I read an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education (June 18, 2010) by Jeffrey R. DiLeo titled "In Praise of Tough Criticism." 

He references some professors who can render "harsh criticism" by using volatile vocabulary to correct the student's performance. 

He references other professors who, while reluctant to use "harsh criticism" on students, instead give "faint praise" by affirming something minor to avoid something major. 

He also references professors who quote criticism from "anonymous" sources while, like "faint praise," provides "empty criticism, the most banal form imaginable." 

Do any of us want to criticize those around us exactly the way Simon Cowell does? I don't think so. Do we want others to criticize us the way Simon Cowell does? I don't think so. But there is something about Simon Cowell's message that is hard to dispute: his evaluation of a quality performance is usually quite accurate. 

I know of few people who want to be flattered inaccurately or to be criticized harshly. But we do want (and need) people to tell us the truth. 

Criticism helps or harms us depending on its style, tone, content, and accuracy. An ancient Bible writer spoke of "speaking the truth in love." A children's song remind us that "a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down." 

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, PA 
Responses can be mailed to president@vfcc.edu