A few nights ago, on a British TV talent show, a plain 47-year-old Scottish woman stunned the audience and judges by warbling a song from Les Miserables with such power and purity of voice as rarely occurs except by natural gift. What made the performance all the more remarkable was Susan Boyle’s self-deprecating sense of humor, her admission that she had never been kissed, and her seeming confusion on the stage before she began to sing.
Those in attendance were expecting a buffoonish, off-key rendition of a difficult-to-sing stage favorite. Instead, they heard the sound of a nightingale. Their hoots and jeers became whoops and cheers three bars into the melody.
What would Ben Franklin say about the audience’s initial perception of Susan Boyle?
Here’s what he’d say: “They judged her by her ugly leg.”
Franklin once wrote about a scientist (called in those days a “Philosopher”) who had a “handsome leg” and one that was deformed as the result of an accident. He used his legs to judge a person’s character. As Franklin put it:
“If a stranger at the first interview regarded his ugly leg more than his handsome one, he doubted him. If he spoke of it, and took no notice of the handsome leg, that was sufficient to determine my Philosopher to have no farther acquaintance with him. … I therefore advise these critical, querulous, discontented unhappy people, that if they wish to be loved and respected by others and happy in themselves, they should leave off looking at the ugly leg.”