The next ten words

Some time ago I posted an article called Precision Tools. It covered quite a complex sequence of ideas that had been taking shape in my thought for a few months. And yes, it’s longer than the average blog post, at just under 2,500 words.

One reader commented that he thought there was material in there for two or three posts. Perhaps it should be broken up into parts, he suggested, to allow each idea to be discussed properly. 

We seem to have accepted that blog posts shouldn’t go much beyond 800 words, and that that they shouldn’t cover more than one main idea. Why? Do we not risk losing our ability to construct (or, as readers, to follow) a complex argument? Is this perhaps a symptom of a society that fails to nurture polymathy?

My correspondent told me that on another site, one devoted to SME business people, he’d been told that his posts were too complex. He’d been advised to run them through some special software to determine the reading age at which they were targeted, and to reduce that age to 15/16.

As a litmus test of how society is operating, I find that rather scary. Yes, it’s important to convey ideas – even complex ideas – in language that young people will understand. It’s important to draw them into the discussion. But not everything can or should be simplified, as I’ve said elsewhere.

Let’s take an extreme example. The Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee meets every month to set interest rates. It’s a meeting which has a direct impact on every mortgage-paying household in the country. Just suppose that in the interests of ‘transparency’ and ‘inclusion’ the MPC were told to discuss everything in terms that could be understood by a 16-year-old.

Would they reach the same decisions as they do at present? Would they reach the right decisions?

I don’t want to find out. I want the MPC to discuss the minutiae of economics in the language of economists. I want them to be experts. I don’t want this country’s monetary policy to be decided at the level of an A-level class. If I wanted to understand the discussion, it would be for me to study economics and bring my economic literacy up to their level.

There are some marvellous people out there who really are raising the level of debate and of communal understanding through their online activity. Many of them are following the formula my correspondent set out of snappy, single-issue blog posts, which as he said is very well suited to online discussion.

The danger is when a prescriptive formula (i.e. one which prescribes how to do something), however valid it may be, becomes proscriptive and dismisses any approach other than its own. The medium cannot be allowed to dictate or to constrain the message.

We need the debate and engagement engendered by the snappy single-issue blogger – or even by the Twitterer. But we cannot tackle the issues facing society one at a time; we also need to foster a capacity for deep and complex thought. And I cannot quite banish the fear that, on the whole, social media–actually, the media in general–are eroding our ability to think beyond the soundbite.

Take three examples. In the late 1990s the issue of genetically modified food began to make the headlines, when the European Union started to consider whether to allow them to be grown and how to monitor and regulate them. I don’t know who first coined the term “Frankenstein food”, but it was certainly in use by 1997–and once it was out there, mature and reasoned public debate was doomed.

I still don’t know the answer to the GM debate. I’m not sure that there is an answer, although I’m reasonably sure that a planet that is home to seven billion people needs to explore every possible route to feeding them, based on sound science and informed debate. But you can’t have an informed debate about GM food when some tabloid sub-editor is going to keep popping up like a jack-in-the-box squawking “Frankenstein! Frankenstein!”.

Example number two is fictional but still makes the point. It’s from season four of The West Wing:

President Bartlet is right. Some questions are too complicated to be answered in just ten words. It’s not that the ten words are necessarily wrong, it’s that they just aren’t enough.

“The American people know how to spend their money better than the federal government” may sound good. But in a real world–a world where politicians are making real decisions about spending real money on health and education and social care and transport and defence, on things that make a difference to real people’s real lives–in that real world, ten-word simplicity isn’t good enough.

But that was a TV show, you might say. That was a scriptwriter trying to make a point. Yes it was, but it happens in real life too.

Take my third example. A few months ago, I had lunch at Noel Chadwick’s–a fine emporium in Standish, near Wigan, a butcher’s shop and restaurant which serves truly memorable food. Just last week I happened to find out that Chadwick’s were proposing to expand their shop into a larger food store.

All good stuff, not least for the people of Standish, who would effectively have a full-time farmers’ market in their High Street alongside the Co-op and Lidl (and of course all the major supermarket chains offering home delivery).

So far so good, until you see what the local paper and the local councillor made of it. The paper decided to apply their own slant to the proposals, re-writing Chadwick’s announcement to suggest that the site might be taken over by a main supermarket chain.

In the paper’s version of events, Chadwick’s planning consultant “admitted” (sic) that his team had been in discussion with planning officers about the proposal. (I wasn’t aware that there was any shame in that, but still.) As an example of artificial sensationalism in the press, it’s hard to beat.

And finally the local councillor adopted the soundbite technique. On his Facebook page he asked the simple question: “Does Standish need another supermarket?” It’s a fair question on the face of it, except that it’s the wrong question. It contributes as much, or rather as little, to the discussion as “The American people know how to spend their money better than the federal government”. (And sadly the councillor has deflected–or deleted–several Facebook comments that have tried to add detail to the debate. )

There is no answer to that five-word question that could possibly help a planning committee to make an informed decision about Chadwick’s proposals.

What are the next ten words? The ten after that?

Does Standish need an expanded Chadwick’s that would offer a wider range of food? Does Standish need another chain supermarket as well as an expanded Chadwick’s? Does Standish need another chain supermarket instead of an expanded Chadwick’s?

Any of these would at least provide a starting point for intelligent discussion. Intelligent discussion about local issues is sorely needed. But it won’t happen if you dumb down the question.

This entry was posted in Power of Language, Society and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The next ten words

  1. philipparees says:

    I see every reason NOT to conform to the soundbite/single issue issue, because the underpinning philosophy is usually more important than the examples that reflect it. But it is wearying swimming against the tide. How long can you keep it up? Virtue is seldom generous in being its own reward!

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