Thursday, June 17, 2010

Dumbing It Down

According to this story on CNN, a language expert who analyzed President Obama's Oval Office address to the nation on Tuesday night concluded that the speech may have sounded too "professorial" or "academic" for its target audience.  Written at nearly a 10th grade level, the speech may have gone over the heads of many members of the public.  I'm wondering, if the president is speaking in too erudite a fashion for Americans to understand, should we demand that he dumb it down, or should we make a greater effort to understand what he is saying?  Instead of criticizing the president for being too professorial, I would suggest that people read the speech a second time if they have trouble understanding it, or maybe turn off the tv for a while and pick up a book or a newspaper. The book I would recommend reading is Dreams from My Father.  First, it is a beautifully-written book, so it is profitable reading for anyone just to gain a better appreciation of the use of language.  Second, it would help people understand the mind of Barack Obama.  Anyone who complains about having difficulty understanding the president just needs to make a little more effort.  With a bit of effort, he is really not that difficult to understand; and it should not be too much to ask that we try to rise to his level, rather than asking him to sink to ours.

This kind of criticism of the president made me realize that many people may resent the president  not because he is liberal, and not because he is black, but perhaps most of all because he is smart, skinny and industrious.  He reminds Americans that we are dumb, fat and lazy, and we don't really appreciate being reminded of that.  Maybe also because he is so smart and hard-working, we would prefer to blame him for all of our  problems instead of trying to correct them ourselves.

Let's focus for a few minutes on the content of the speech.  After telling us all the administration is doing to fix the problem, and that BP is also going to be held fully responsible, the speech leads to the conclusion that there are things that all of us can do to wean ourselves off our dependence on oil.  Let's face it.  The reason we had a giant oil spill is that Americans think we have a God-given right to as much cheap oil as we care to use, so we are willing to put up with drilling off our coasts, and we are willing to allow the oil companies to cut a few corners so they can keep us supplied with the oil we crave.  We are unwilling to change some of our habits, and pay more for our oil-driven lifestyle.  The part of the president's speech that undoubtedly went over the heads of most people was the part that called on all of us to change:
For decades, we have known the days of cheap and easily accessible oil were numbered. For decades, we've talked and talked about the need to end America's century-long addiction to fossil fuels. And for decades, we have failed to act with the sense of urgency that this challenge requires. Time and again, the path forward has been blocked -- not only by oil industry lobbyists, but also by a lack of political courage and candor.
The president went on to say that all of us have a part to play in making the energy transition, and that it is going to cost money.  No wonder people want to shut their ears to this message and say it is too hard to understand! 

(top: White House photo)

(thanks to Greg Jones for flagging this story)

1 comment:

  1. Part of being "smart" is knowing how to speak to people and how to make yourself understood. Some of the smartest people I know are pretty stupid when it comes to this.

    Being an "academic" is the problem... seeming cold and uncaring, is.

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