‘I think therefore I am’…Descartes offers an early example of summarising complex ideas in a simple phrase. The father of modern Western philosophy and key thinker behind rationalism had ideas that endure. Capturing a core idea in five words is not dumbing down but uplifting.
If only today’s language was based on intelligent analysis.
I blame American venture capitalists. They insist that entrepreneurs explain their business plan in an ‘elevator pitch’. If you cannot capture the idea as the lift moves up a floor, your business is rejected and you have to walk down the stairs.
Meanwhile over in Hollywood the movie producers, who have all the concentration of a fruit fly, ask their development directors to pitch movie ideas that are ‘high concept’. What they want is a movie idea that can be summarised in a couple of sentences. What if we could clone dinosaurs? (Jurassic Park) It’s Jaws in space! (Alien)
And then there are the ad agencies. They created slogans to sell the products. That’s fine with soap powder (washes whiter). Sales and marketing material is right for products but wrong for political debate. Politicians could not resist using the ad agency tricks because simplicity makes them look authentic. Saatchi & Saatchi advising the Tories, followed by Mandelson using the communication tricks learnt in TV for his re-branding of New Labour.
If you are in politics, suddenly it becomes easier to communicate with the public. You don’t have to write a long speech, you don’t have to think through your policy. It is easier to develop some catch phrases ‘Let’s Make America Great Again’ and ‘Better Together’ and never have to explain what they mean. It is ‘anti-intellectualism’, where the politicians treat us like children with dumbed down language. Research (Elvin T. Lim, Wesleyan University 2008 ‘The Anti-Intellectual Presidency: The Decline of Presidential Rhetoric from George Washington to George W. Bush’) shows that that political speeches are more and more vacuous ‘designed to maximise applause lines, stroke the emotions and appeal to our intuitions’.
Mrs Thatcher understood the siren call of feeling over ideas, but rejected them. There was a marvellous and much quoted scene in the movie The Iron Lady (2011) when Meryl Streep as Thatcher considers the slide towards emotions: ‘People don’t think anymore. They feel’..….’ One of the great problems of our age is that we are governed by people who care more about feelings than they do about thoughts and ideas. Thoughts and ideas. That interests me. Ask me what I’m thinking.’
Thatcher understood that thinking and policy were important. Today, in America, feelings have ascendency. Last year The Boston Globe reviewed the language used by 19 presidential candidates, Democrats and Republicans, in speeches announcing their campaigns for this year’s presidential election. The review, looked at word choice and sentence structure and then gave grade-level rankings.
Among Democrats, Hillary Clinton’s speeches were just right for thirteen-year-olds; but by every criteria Donald Trump spoke at the lowest level. He used ‘fewer characters per word in his announcement speech, fewer syllables per word, and his sentences were shorter than all other candidates’. The Boston Globe summarised his speech as ‘emotional, simple, and angry’. The Globe’s example of Republican foreign policy expressed by Trump was ‘Let’s take their oil!’
If we are spoken to as teenagers and never ‘told’ the important detail, we will forget how to listen. In the UK we have had intermediaries who helped explain political policy … yes, trade unions! And yes, Conservative Party HQ was part of the way that people passed information between each other. Neither have resonance today and the growth of social media (140-character Twitter tweets) has created a demand for simplified language that dumbs down our political discourse.
Decartes knew that thinking is the one thing that cannot be faked. Dumbed down slogans may make us feel , but this is not enough… we need to think. If not, we get the leaders we deserve.
(Image: Bill B)