Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A problem with public discourse

Take a look at this article that appeared in CNN, regarding a speech by Barack Obama about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. What bugs me about the article is reading the following:

Obama's nearly 10th-grade-level rating was the highest of any of his major speeches and well above the grade 7.4 of his 2008 "Yes, we can" victory speech, which many consider his best effort, Payack said.

"The scores indicate that this was not Obama at his best, especially when attempting to make an emotional connection to the American people," he added.

Though the president used slightly less than four sentences per paragraph, his 19.8 words per sentence "added some difficulty for his target audience," Payack said.

In other words, if a president does not talk to the general population as if they had not yet finished 7th grade, then we will not understand. And if we cannot understand anything more complex than what a 7th grader would understand, exactly why do we claim we can solve any complex problem such as the following?
  • Problems regarding the interpretation of the Constitution, the law that ultimately rules our lives and gives us wonderful things such as the 5th amendment.
  • Problems regarding the workings of financial institutions as well as the workings of our checking account and the national budget.
  • Problems regarding science, such as whether we should allow creationism, or whether we should send people to Mars, or climate change, or renewable sources of energy and raw materials, or whether the latest genetic manipulation will result in food we can safely consume.
  • Problems regarding more politicized issues, such as health care, affirmative action, gun control, law enforcement, media conglomerates, education, and religion.
  • Problems regarding the use of the military and international diplomacy.
See? If we are really a bunch of 7th graders, then we cannot deal with these problems. Consequently, we have to be talked to as if we were not adults capable of reasonably exercising their right to vote. Instead, we have to be talked to as if we were children that can only deal with the world around them in emotional terms. Besides, what do we actually vote for, exactly?

Ultimately, and most disturbingly, there is the implication that the president (or any other figure we listen to) must make an emotional connection with us, rather than engage in adult conversation. Consequently, that means we are not supposed to hear something like "look, we know X, Y and Z, so we can do A, B and C but not D". Rather, we are supposed to hear "yes we can", or "America is great", or "land of opportunity", or "democrat", or "republican", or "liberal", or who knows what else. All sorts of decisions regarding the above problems are possible with 7th grader tools, except good ones.

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