Monday, May 7, 2012

On the dumbing down of entertainment

It is often said that works produced by the entertainment industry; be it TV shows, movies, cartoons, comics, plays, magazines, newspapers and books, have been affected over the past century by something we term as 'dumbing down'. In essence: a lowering of the intellectual tone.

By our own application of the term ‘dumbed down’ to our entertainment we are meant to understand that nearly all works produced have been created for an audience of lesser intelligence than any previous one. There is no explanation given as to why producers would do so or why the audience is believed dumber than ever so we're left to guess. Also, by applying the term we’re to believe that those producing entertainment are either less intelligent than in previous centuries or more arrogant in their belief that they collectively have superior intellect than their audience.

The result of a producer buying into the superior intellect theory would mean they believe they must dumb things down for an almost illiterate and generally stupid audience just so the audience can understand what is going on and be entertained enough to continue following whatever is being produced.

I think there are a few problems with such assumptions and their consequences. These are:
  • that the average audience member now is dumber than ever before
  • that the audience requires talking down to
  • that the audience needs to be catered to and nurtured as one does a child
  • that anyone producing entertainment is more intelligent than those in the audience
  • that works need to be simpler to be acceptable
  • that only light and easy entertainment will appeal to the masses
So on and so forth.

The problems arise because:
  • the audience isn't dumber than ever 
  • the audience doesn't require talking down to 
  • the audience doesn't generally appreciate being talked down to
  • the audience isn't likely to get any stupider unless those producing entertainment do or continually lower the intellectual tone for the purpose of gaining a larger market share

It has been bandied about that literacy rates are falling and the often perceived impact is that the public is dumber because of it. Therefore the intellectual tone of our entertainment should be lowered so that more people can grasp just what is going on.

But the audience members aren't actually dumber if they're illiterate. Literacy isn't a measure of intelligence so much as it is a measure of learning and our education systems. Comprehending what is going on about a person is aided by literacy but comprehension and abilities are there even without the ability to read or write.

The literate and illiterate may struggle to communicate, however, as different methods of communication will be relied upon. Thus a literate person may come to believe an illiterate one dumb when in fact the literate person is being dumb by relying too much on reading and writing and not openly searching for and adopting another method of communication. It can all be a bit of a soupy mess really but it is always nice to see people having faith in others, at least over the vast majority of us being able to comprehend and communicate somehow. Only those with debilitating conditions may suffer from an inability to communicate and comprehend.

Also, literacy rates are incredibly high in most countries worldwide. The real problem is the divide in national literacy rates between countries, not so much the divide between the literate and illiterate within any highly literate country (which is where I hear the most complaining about people not being able to spell correctly. In countries where the literacy rate is quite low complaints about not being able to read and write at all are what I hear).

Here's just a quick glimpse of some world literacy information gathered in 2012.

Definition: age 15 and over can read and write
Total population: 83.7%
Male: 88.3%
Female: 79.2%
Note: over two-thirds of the world's 793 million illiterate adults are found in only eight countries (Bangladesh, China, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Pakistan); of all the illiterate adults in the world, two-thirds are women; extremely low literacy rates are concentrated in three regions, the Arab states, South and West Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa, where around one-third of the men and half of all women are illiterate (2005-09 est.)"

So if you live in a highly literate country when you say that an audience your targeting is dumber than ever you are raising yourself, the entertainer to a level of intelligence way beyond what you actually are (not just by a little and even then it is unlikely to be so). Most people within a highly literate country read, write and comprehend extremely well. The bad grammar and spelling you are seeing and interpreting as illiteracy is actually due to laziness, the speed with which someone is working, a lack of editing and a lack of following up on a topic they're unfamiliar with by researching (thus confusion over the topic not the words used to explain it).

There are some ways of writing that are much like writing in code or shorthand, like writing tags and scribbling notes. Fads or patterns not usually found in correct writing are followed en masse until they're replaced with another fad or pattern, rather like slang. In these the grammar and spelling become secondary to the message and your lack of understanding these as comprehensible language is purely due to your personal perspective, knowledge and prejudices (everyone has a set to call their own).

The general audience for any given English speaking piece of entertainment is one that is quite intelligent, highly educated, capable of understanding not just standard English but several versions of it, clued into various different entertainment trends at any given time and expectant of a high level of intellectual stimulation along with the silliest of entertainment to match their flowing moods.

Like that old saying: too much of anything can be a bad thing. In the case of entertainment too much complexity all the time is wearing on the mind and heart just as too much mind-numbingly idiotic entertainment sends one to sleep or has one shifting about in rage at being treated like an idiot.

There are generally only a few new concepts or issues that need explaining to the public in depth. For topics not yet assumed into entertainment, such as new scientific or mathematical discoveries, a fair degree of explanation will always be required. This does not mean your audience is incapable of looking it up themselves but to do so would, of course, break into the entertainment you are providing so it's best to explain while you're entertaining. Within a story just about everything needs to be described or given a history so provide such descriptions and history in a manner appropriate to the story. 

I do not advocate describing or writing in a manner suitable for a child or teen when your audience is made up of adults. While adults might occasionally dip into teen entertainment for a quick blast of light fun they aren't likely to do so in every case.

The idea that you need to lower the language used or remove overly complex ideas to gain or keep an audience is ridiculous. Put baldy, those who talk down to others who are obviously of equal intelligence show disrespect and disrespect leads to non-acceptance. You will in fact lose your audience if you create work that is obviously lowered from its possible standards. Incorrectly targeting an audience will do the same thing: promoting a teen work as an adult one will turn your audience away. Correctly target first and then if your audience is wider than anticipated, expand to meet it.

If the intellectual tone of a book matches the subject matter then there is no problem. Likewise with any other form of entertainment. But if the tone, the level of intellectual engagement offered, is far lower than required the audience will put aside the book, never to pick it up again. 

Does reading Spot The Dog generally entertain a third grader (8 year old)? No. They've outgrown such books and are now onto Charlotte's Web, The Hobbit and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Would you expect a similar gap between intellectual level and audience to work for any age rage? Most assuredly not. So don't make works 'dumber' than they need to be. In fact, aim up. Challenge a little. Make the audience learn a little and feel like they accomplished something by doing so. Learning is always satisfying, even for those few who don't like to actively search out new information.

I believe that only by those producing entertainment continually dumbing works down and removing older and more intellectually challenging works from the public eye will the audience become, as they say, "stoopid". Education goes a long way in producing a literate audience and that literacy will always remain. That said, the audience can become increasingly disinclined to search for new information through first apathy and boredom and then finally confusion and inability. 

Instead of believing our entertainment should be dumbed down for masses of nearly illiterate people, have some faith in your fellows and believe that if you provide a level of intellectual stimulation appropriate to or slightly above what's being produced that you will gain, entertain and keep an audience. Because you will.

For example, if you are writing a light, quick read then throw in a few long words and twists and turns in your plot so the reader is left guessing. Luckily, if your writing a book to challenge the average reader in any way, a literary work or a science fiction piece for example, then you will already be expected to write to a intellectual level.

For all of our sakes please don't make our entertainment 'dumber' just because you believe we all are. We aren't so the entertainment provided won't be entertaining at all. It will be boring. It won't to be followed unless there's nothing else about. You will lose money. It is insulting and disrespectful to expect both creators and the audience to dumb things down. And it will also gradually make us all worse off intellectually.

And then where will we be?

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