This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #444, on the subject of Ability versus Popularity.
The world seems overrun with supposed talent contests in which ordinary people are invited to vote for the winners–the best musicians seems the most common, but other forms of entertainment are not exempt, including the best books. I generally do not participate in these (that is, I don’t vote in them; not ever having been nominated, I cannot speak to that side of it), and I expect that people who think that I am at least nominally a friend are upset when I don’t rally to support them. However, I think such support would usually be dishonest, reducing what is supposed to be a measure of ability to a measure of popularity. Permit me to explain.
I have thought of this many times before, but this morning an announcer on a radio station which is a bit bigger than “local”, being a network of I think four stations covering sections of four states, encouraged listeners to go to a web site and vote for a particular contestant in a televised contest because he happened to live somewhere in the listening area. Quite apart from the fact that the specific place he lived was at least a hundred miles from where I was when I heard this, that to me seems a very bad–and truly dishonest–basis on which to vote for someone in a talent show. It wasn’t even suggested that the specific contestant was a listener of the station, which also is a bad basis on which to cast such a vote. Nor did the announcer suggest that voting should be limited to people who actually saw the show.
I similarly get personal invitations to vote for people I have at least met, or with whom I have interacted over the Internet, who are participating in local contests, usually musical. I also am encouraged at times to vote for the best books of the year.
The fundamental problem here is that I am ill-informed on the subject. Often I have not actually heard the musician or band who wants my support–certainly my fault, that I fail to get to concerts and other venues or to watch many internet music videos, but a clear fact. I also don’t read most of the best-selling books–I rarely read any of them, truth be told, reading books that are less familiar and usually older most of the time. For me to vote for a band or book based on the fact that I know the artist or author without having any direct exposure to the work is itself dishonest.
So then, does that mean it is less dishonest to vote for the book I read, or the band I heard? I think not. If we are voting for the best book of the year, and I read one of them, on what basis am I asserting that this book is better than all the other books published this past year? If I’ve only heard one of the bands in the competition, what value is my opinion that it is better than all the bands I haven’t heard?
When I was in radio I several times selected what I believed were the most significant Christian albums released over the year. Arguably popularity could be a factor in significance, but I was more interested in ministry and artistic factors. Someone once asked me what right I had to presume to review record albums, and I said, as the first point, that my job meant I heard every record released in the genre every year, and my second point that I had studied and performed music and made my own recordings, so I was intimately familiar with the process and the product. If I chose an album as among the best, I had a reasonable and defensible basis for saying so.
Of course, people have all kinds of reasons for recommending a vote for a particular selection. This candidate is from our home town, a member of our organization, an advocate of a particular position on an important issue, a member of a minority group, a Christian. Every single one of those notions is a very poor basis on which to vote for the best in any group. It devolves to a question of whom we like, and that’s not what we’re supposed to be choosing.
Thus such “talent” contests devolve into popularity contests. I don’t like popularity contests, and maybe I’ll talk about that on my Patreon web log, but there is fundamentally a problem with determining the best based on who is the most popular–and it is a problem that infects everything in America from television shows to government.
And since it is thus dishonest to vote for who is the best on any basis other than a more than passing familiarity with all the candidates and an honest assessment of their relative merits, almost everyone who votes in such contests is dishonest. I will not be dishonest that way, and will not ask you to be dishonest on my behalf.