Using Plain Language to Make America Great Again
Fast Food – Fast News
Trump is really, really smart. His intellect is huge and he knows things. Many such things. Excellent man.
One thing he knows: Our schools are really, really bad. Really, really, really bad. They’re nasty places.
And maybe because of that, he uses plain language.
Shaming or blaming people for being stupid–for being uninformed, for not caring about politics–is stupid. It’s like blaming people for being fat.
Generations of individuals didn’t become lazy gluttons at the exact same time because they were weak. No, our world changed. McDonalds everywhere, temptations everywhere. It was bad. Bad, bad food all around us.
Likewise, Americans haven’t grown more stupid. Rather, our world changed. The world of information changed. Reality TV is everywhere. Everywhere. Celebrities are on twitter. Kids are talking in memes.
Made from data from Nielson.com. I’m a huge fan of TV, and as H. Jon Benjamin says on Master of None, “We’re living in the golden age of television.” However, I found it telling that in recent interviews with the creators of the critically shows, Atlanta and Westworld, Donald Glover and Lisa Joy both reported they were largely forbidden from watching TV as kids.
A hundred years ago everyone ate healthy food because that was all that was available. Then the problems were different–we worried about not having enough food. Now our problem is that healthy food has to compete with McDonald’s.
A hundred years ago people read newspapers and boring books because that was all that was available. Now boring news has to compete with entertainment.
A boring politician just competed with an entertainer, and the entertainer won. A reality TV star won.
Simon Cowell with his $500 million net worth, was posed to run for prime minister of the post-Brexit UK. However, he declined running in anticipation of being appointed to the supreme court, due to his extensive judging experience. He will be the first immigrant ever appointed.
Trump is the oldest first-term president we have ever elected, but he understands the new world, the new language. (Perhaps his wives have kept him young?)
The same way radio and then television changed news media and changed elections, the new media culture has changed them again. Speeches first transformed into sound bites, and now they have further evolved (devolved?) into three-syllable phrases like: “Lock her up,” or “Build The Wall!” Though Clinton demolished Trump in traditional arenas like debates, Trump’s one true genius may be his understanding of television and the new world of communication.
Trump knew how controversy generates free press. He also knew how far the “political correctness” and the widening moral sphere of urban, liberal America had exceeded that of traditional, red-blooded (e.g. white) Americans. Like a reality star leaking a sex tape, he did what was sufficient to cause a Media uproar, without alienating his core audience.
English Motherfucker, Do You Speak It?
After the election, I felt stunned. Scrolling down my facebook feed, no one was celebrating. I live in a silo, an echo-chamber. This is the same echo chamber where I learned the words privilege and trigger warning. As America has divided, has our language divided as well?
Listening to comedians and podcasts, I am often surprised to hear them stumble over words I assumed were common knowledge. Today, I listened as Bill Burr was mystified by the word ‘proprietary.’ Bill Burr is not a stupid guy. The issue isn’t that Americans who disagree with you are stupid. It’s that they live in different worlds, with different lived experiences. They have different friends who and largely speak a different language.
In my skewed sense of the world, Bill Burr is my closest image of an American everyman. Wish he talked more about gender and supreme court pics here, but as he says he’s just a comedian.
In 2010, Obama signed into law the Plain Writing Act of 2010. The act requires federal agencies to use plain language in every document. Wikipedia gives a before-and-after example of how jargon-filled government documents should be simplified:
Before: “The amount of expenses reimbursed to a claimant under this subpart shall be reduced by any amount that the claimant receives from a collateral source. In cases in which a claimant receives reimbursement under this subpart for expenses that also will or may be reimbursed from another source, the claimant shall subrogate the United States to the claim for payment from the collateral source up to the amount for which the claimant was reimbursed under this subpart.” 77 words, 467 characters, ~5 characters per word.
After: “If you get a payment from a collateral source, we will reduce our payment by the amount you get. If you get payments from us and from a collateral source for the same expenses, you must pay us back the amount we paid you.” 44 words, 223 characters, ~4 characters per word.
Perhaps Trump’s twitter experience made him good at simplifying his language and ideas to their emotional core.
Following the election, Obama said “I believe we have better ideas, but I also believe that good ideas don’t matter if people don’t hear them.” Likewise, good ideas don’t matter if people don’t understand them because they are hidden in complicated language.
Good writing will always have its place, but as a mass-communication tool it’s dead. If you think that’s a tragedy, I agree. But, like with obesity, figuring out how to recover America’s literacy will take generations to correct at this point.
Instead, we need to learn our audience–in the case of persuasion, those who disagree with us who we want to convince of a point, and we have to meet them halfway, translating our own language into language they can understand. We don’t need dumb it down because the other side is stupid, but to the jargon we may be unaware we are using.
It often seems futile–that everyone’s opinions already set in stone, but studies of activism for transgender rights shows approaching people in person and appealing to their empathy may work (though this may only be true for relatively ‘new’ issues).
Unfortunately, most people can’t be changed, even by the best ideas. In science, there is a joke that progress doesn’t happen because new ideas are adopted, but because old ideas die out. If things continue as they’ve been going Trump and the ideas he represents will die off.
I’m struggling to decide if Trump’s improbable campaign and victory shows how difficult it is to predict the future, or if it is an example of business as usual showing that voters will vote for literally any candidate their party puts forward.
If most people are already locked into ideologies, maybe the people we need to be speaking to are those who haven’t made up their mind yet. Not these supposed swing-voters who just can’t make up their minds, but those who are exploring new ideas for the first time: fourth-graders.
I worry for our fourth-graders. I worry that Trump is the only politician speaking to them in their own language, at their reading-level.
In my own attempt to understand ‘the other side,’ I also came upon this speech:
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