Justly Praising the Great & the Mediocre
The restaurant trade has done its share of damage,” reports a new book on the English language. “Fish are no longer fried or grilled, they are crisped, seared, glazed, truffled and lacquered. Freshness in supermarkets is no longer good enough. Vegetables must be dew-fresh, market-fresh or seasonal.”
The writer of Fanboys and Overdogs: The Language Report, Susie Dent, suggests a reason for what she calls “linguistic supersizing”: “the influence of advertising-speak and corporate jargon on language, in which everything needs to be hyped to get noticed. It means that some of our greatest words are losing their power. To be called a hero used to be the highest honour. Now you have to be a superhero to make an impact.”
This is the sort of thing that makes academic conferences so trying. One professor inevitably begins his response to another’s paper by praising “this fascinating analysis” and “great contribution to the field” and by telling everyone how intrigued they all were, even when the professor has left half the room asleep with an incomprehensible mixture of platitudes, non sequiturs, name-dropping, and irrelevant quotations.
Christians do it as much as anyone. You can see why they would speak this way, beyond the influence of the culture. Any Christian wants to encourage people and make them happy, and can do so just by exaggerating a little bit. The subject’s pleasure in the compliment makes you feel better yourself. So the next time you exaggerate a little bit more, which makes him happy, which makes you happy, which leads you to offer yet greater praise, and the cycle keeps going.
A certain degree of inflation is simple kindness and understood by everyone to be a formality not to be taken as a serious judgment. You praise your hostess’s steak, but not by the standards you’d apply to the steakhouse. But there is a sharp limit to this, and linguistic supersizing actually deceives. This may seem like a minor problem, but it is a sin against justice, in refusing to give things their due, and against charity, in refusing to tell people the truth they need to hear. In other words, it hurts people.
For one thing, you have a very hard time making a sincere compliment that sounds sincere. You cannot securely offer the encouragement people need. You can use the words you once would have used, but when people are so used to an inflated language, a genuine compliment may well sound like damning with faint praise. When everyone else says to the fellow you’re trying to compliment, “That was wonderful, marvelous, just brilliant,” your “Nicely done” sounds pretty much like “Nice try, loser.”
This is a practical problem for the artist and craftsman—the musician, painter, writer, preacher, singer, church organist, etc.—because he loses the real and honest responses that will help him improve his craft. The good craftsman doesn’t want praise he doesn’t deserve, though being as vain as anyone else (or more so), he tends to lap it up when he gets it. He wants to know when his work is good and when it’s bad. A chorus of people saying “Just brilliant” does not help him.
For another thing, the inflation destroys the recognition of excellence and achievement that encourages people to try to do excellent work. You can only praise someone so highly before you run out of words with which to praise him, and if nearly everyone’s work is praised in the same terms, you lose the ability to point to real excellence. The loss of excellence, in painting or medicine or anything else, harms many.
I do not think I have been to a concert or play in years that did not end with a standing ovation. Some of them were very good, but what can one now do to recognize a truly superlative performance? I suppose you could start a new way to recognize great work by standing on your chair as you cheer or taking off your shirt and whirling it in the air above your head, but two weeks later everyone will be standing on their chairs or taking off their shirts and whirling them in the air.
David Mills has been editor of Touchstone and executive editor of First Things.
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