Is Dumbing Down a Reality?

May 15, 2016 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

As the future of public service broadcasting is uncertain, it is timely now to again ask a familiar question and to broaden the debate beyond the confines of sectional interest.

The question is not new: is dumbing down a reality? It began with Pierre Bourdieu’s 1979 critique of class-based concepts of culture. If culture is power [in the positive sense of enlightening and liberating], a dominant class maintains its control over society by providing a debased and derivative culture for the masses.

Responses are necessarily subjective. Not all, however, are rational. Considering these matters we are confronted at once by a conventional quasi-liberalism which wills that culture is the entirety of experience. The walls of artificial hierarchies have been torn down, and in their place comes an avowed democracy of taste in which all things are equally valid. The expectation is that authentic culture will find its way through by the strength of its popularity and influence. It would be disrespectful to a work of art to suggest it is not art, or that it is bad art. If enough people like it by their individual, free choice that judgement is correct.

The strength of this approach lies in its apparent radicalism. As citizens in a free society we have the democratic mandate to determine what our culture should be. In the internet age we are informed. We have the credentials of education. We have the capability to choose for ourselves aesthetic worth as surely as we make moral choices.

It is clear at a glance that the conforming nature of these choices belies the supposed freedom on offer. What is actually on offer is a set of conventions whose bounds are crossed at the risk of censure. We are free to accept. We are not free to question.

If a singer takes a breath in the middle of a phrase he lacks basic technique. To praise him as a cultural icon is to resort to a tired, sub-literate cliché. To be dismayed by this is to place oneself in the margin. The mainstream is for the free market of values where the best rises and the worst falls.

‘All this talk of dumbing down is nonsense,’ said the broadcasting cultural historian. ‘People are reading and thinking as I am.’ She was recounting a train journey where she had observed the other passengers. Quite where the train was going we only can speculate. Clouds and cuckoos may come to mind.

It is easy to mistake our own experience as the whole world. Of course we know in the abstract that other people live other lives, but our understandings and empathies may be circumscribed too easily by perceptions personal to us. Other places are glimpsed as we pass through. Other lives are silhouettes and shadows. What we see most clearly is our own reflection in the glass.

Breaking through those glass walls is an obligation, however formidable the task may be.

Without a sympathetic imagination intellectual enquiry atrophies into self-reference. And cultural advancement is stalled by the encrustations of stale emotion. Beyond the carapace a wider society sees only the privileged irrelevance that is easily dismissed.

Recognising the democratic obligation is so much easier than exploring its possibilities.

The need is for valid ways of communication. There are traps lying in wait for the unwary. You can believe that the concerns of a metropolitan liberal humanist are universal. Or you can acknowledge the range of interests and viewpoints available in a culture that claims to celebrate its plurality.

Another alternative is to stress the contrasts that continue to cripple our society. The metropolitan liberal position on closer inspection may turn out to be both narrow and extreme, in fact the antithesis of its avowal. Extreme positions may be undertaken with the best of intentions. But the wider society feels that its concerns are under-valued. It feels patronized when it is not ignored.

There can be no social exchange unless social realities are acknowledged. Broad stroke generalities are no substitute for the particulars of actual, observable conditions. Generalities tend to be founded on hearsay and prejudice.

Stereotypes may replace the nuanced varieties of living experience. Dumbing down is the simplifying of complexity to the point where it no longer signifies its intentions.

The process is familiar to anyone who has glanced at a drug store self-help book by an author whose PhD is cited but not fully referenced. With sentences that begin ‘As the Ancient Greek Philosopher Aristotle said”you may learn how to outsmart those elitist phonies.

Not everyone can respond to everything that is on offer. There are fields of intellectual enquiry beyond the capacity of all but those for whom higher mathematics is an intelligible language. But we all need to know what is happening. The problem is that the concentration required to appreciate Bartok or Jackson Pollock runs counter to the nervous immediacies of an ever advancing technology. People are encouraged to dismiss as archaic and/or irrelevant the resources they need to make sense of the world. There was a time when villagers could live healthily and contentedly by Bible readings and folk wisdom. Our world demands difficult moral choices which many of us feel ill-equipped to approach.

There is a necessary role waiting here for an oppositional culture to fill. But to undertake the task entails some degree of distance from the established centres of power. The dispensations available are likely to be deferred when questions arise. Those who question the legitimacy of a culture of consent acknowledge an obligation that many will readily circumvent.

That is to say, the places where one might hope for an alternative position are out of the mainstream. The relentless ‘news’ about celebrities, the juxtaposition of discrete genres on the booksellers’ shelves, the large claims made for ephemera, the absence of a sense of history, the absence of informed perspectives: these are among the factors that impede the development of a truly common culture. The world is tabloid shaped.

A common culture is where the categories are fluid and genres are mutually dependent, where appreciation can work on several levels. Not everyone can receive everything, but at the core of a common culture is a meeting ground where the foundations of an everyday democracy can be laid. What we have currently is an ersatz version with a diversity of faces grinning the pretence that we’re all one big family. It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white, young or old, rich or poor – we all can hold hands and teach the world to sing.

It’s the blandness that grates. It is too accessible. There is nothing to work for. On the other hand, we have the aridity of a music that fails to find an audience beyond its practitioners. Everywhere we have boom-boom-boom. Somewhere in between are the passionate rhythms of Florence Welch and the verbal dexterities of Jarvis Cocker. In vital talent may be found the voices that matter. They are the voices that speak out. And in doing so they find ways of responding to the world that are alive to its challenges. A sense of resistance is present somewhere, preparing to signify its intentions. Whatever they may be they are going to shock broadcasting cultural historians out of their complacency. That thought alone is the worth the price of admission.

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This post was written by Geoffrey Heptonstall

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