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Dumbing down

There are different kinds of silence; ours, I think, was an instinctive dread of catching the plague of dramatic rhetoric. People do not realize how insidiously, in certain circumstances, they can be infected by the rhetorical. And how important it is at least to try to shake it off. And to do so in the name of what seems a simple but is actually a perverse rule, that it is on the slippery confines between the banal and the mysterious that we only fleetingly brush against the never wholly grasped nature of things.
– Gustaw Herling


To put it another way – or perhaps to even say something else: we appear to often be too afraid of simplicity. As I eavesdropped on some conversations last night, the tension between saying something meaningful and saying things in an entertaining way – no matter how meaningful – was prominent in much of what I overheard. One response to this tension is to be silent, but the more common response seems to be to de-prioritise the content of conversations – to simply have them as a way of passing the time, without much regard for the actual views being exchanged. That is, of course, if views are being exchanged at all, rather than simply being displayed in the form of sounds, without any cognisance of the fact that you are, in conversation, revealing or advertising the quality of your thoughts and character. In this age of brands and branding, we seem to quickly forget that your brand – yourself – is constantly on promotion, and that you serve as both product and brand manager.

The trick we have played on ourselves is to disassociate the contents of our skulls from that brand, except in certain rare and carefully defined situations. When we mark a conversation out as “serious”, or when we are in certain situations – the classroom, the boardroom, the lovers’ quarrel – we are usually happy to be judged by the content of our speech. But outside of those situations, we demand charity of interpretation, and reserve the right to not be taken seriously. Of course there is a place for this, but it seems to often serve as a way of excusing laziness, of legitimately allowing ourselves license to not make sense. And as this becomes a habit, perhaps we become less able to make sense when we need to. But given that our interlocutors are also unable to make as much sense in thought and conversation as they should, they rarely perceive us as lazy, and consequently nobody notices that we are all dumbing down.

We seem to live in ideological cocoons, wrapped in a common and pervasive epistemological relativism – so much so that I often feel surprised when I find myself in a conversation where the intent seems to be to investigate, or reach clarity, on some issue of mutual concern. I’m skeptical of the translation of the word “banal” in the Herling quote – it seems to me that he’s talking about the contrast between considered speech, where the stakes are higher because you are exposing yourself, and the more carefree passing-the-time sort of conversation. So the banality Herling speaks of then rests in the potential for pedantry – for slow, careful consideration of argument, for the sort of thing that can challenge a perception and unsettle one’s well-established complacency. When one does speak in this manner, one often encounters resistance, ranging from the internal resistance of being afraid to come across as a bore to the external resistance of others perceiving you as a bore, and being afraid of your conversational quicksand.

What to do? Perhaps it starts with paying more attention to simple things, like how we talk about what we eat and drink. Perhaps we need to watch less TV, or read more books. Or perhaps, if we are patient, these concern will fade from consciousness, and even the philosophy departments will spend their time discussing reality TV.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.