ANOTHER VIEW

How dumbed-down can things get?

In politics today, ‘what will it cost?’ is the only question asked and the answer to it the only one required. Yet it produces a meaningless answer.

CHARLES GORDON February 12 1996
ANOTHER VIEW

How dumbed-down can things get?

In politics today, ‘what will it cost?’ is the only question asked and the answer to it the only one required. Yet it produces a meaningless answer.

CHARLES GORDON February 12 1996

How dumbed-down can things get?

In politics today, ‘what will it cost?’ is the only question asked and the answer to it the only one required. Yet it produces a meaningless answer.

ANOTHER VIEW

CHARLES GORDON

Too much has been made of the glowing puck episode on Fox TV. But that’s no reason to stop talking about it. The network’s decision to lend visual enhancement to the puck during the National Hockey League’s all-star game can be seen as yet one more example of a growing trend in North American society— the dumbing-down of just about everything.

The overall concept of dumbing-down is not a new one, but the notion that sports could be dumbed-down any further takes a bit of getting used to. We have already seen sports journalism begin to concentrate less on how athletes perform, which takes some thought, to how much money they make, which takes none. Now, a purple electronic haze is put around the puck so that television viewers know where it is and a flashing red tail is added to it so that those viewers can follow it as it is shot at the net.

In this country, at least, the experiment received almost universally negative reviews, probably because people were aware that seeing the puck was not really the issue. Understanding the game was. Canadians have no difficulty finding the puck because they understand, by watching what the players are doing, where the puck is. Many fans, in complaining about the experiment, made the intriguing point that the purple haze forced their eyes to the puck, and away from the game. In other words, there is more to the game than the puck.

Something good could come of this, some small rebellion. Perhaps fans, when they ponder the purple puck, will come to a sharper realization of the many ways they have been treated as if they were dumb. From the designated hitter to the slam dunk competition to the scoreboard that tells them when to cheer, fans have had to endure one assault after another on their intelligence, one indication after another that the sports gods—and particularly the television gods—thought they were incapable of appreciating the game on

its own merits, of understanding what was going on. And if the sports fans rebel, can rebellion in other dumbed-down areas of society be far behind?

Let’s not even talk about advertising, which has been treating people like morons for more than half a century, and turn to political discourse, which has gradually been reduced to the most simplistic level.

This trend is most evident in the news media’s reliance on the reaction story, the coverage of any development converted to the coverage of those who feel one way or another about it. If there is a complicated piece of legislation, for example, the coverage of it will consist of asking different affected individuals and interest groups what they think and reporting their reactions. Watch the reporting of the next federal or provincial budget to see the practice in action. It is a far easier thing to do than report the ramifications and impact, not to mention the contents, of the budget. And it is all being done in the name of the voter/reader/viewer, who is considered insufficiently clever to handle the straight goods.

In public life, the dumbing-down has many forms. The television debate is another,

based on the ludicrous idea that how a politician looks in an artificial environment under the television lights for two hours has anything at all to do with the politician’s ability to govern the country. Yet the event is treated with extraordinary gravity by the news media, whose creation it is, and by the politicians themselves.

Even here, in a climate of oversimplification, further oversimplification takes place, in the search for the so-called knockout punch, the 20-second sound bite that is better than the opponent’s 20-second sound bite and therefore qualifies the one to be a better president or prime minister than the other. Watch, next time, to see an electronic red flame follow the words out of the winner’s mouth.

The latest and most influential bit of political dumbing-down began as what was thought to be an exercise in intelligence around the mid-1980s. Politicians were making too many irresponsible promises, with no regard for their consequences. So it seemed a natural and logical thing to ask the question: what will it cost? Politicians asked the question of other politicians. Journalists asked it. Suddenly, North American politics became cost-conscious.

To an extreme, as it turned out. In political discourse today, “what will it cost?” is the only question asked and the answer to it the only one required. Yet it is a dumb question producing a meaningless answer. The components of cost change, interest rates change, weather causes delays, unforeseen circumstances develop—so that a politician saying that a program will run for five years with a cost of $514.5 million really has not the foggiest idea what he is saying and not the remotest chance of being correct.

Yet the question continues to be asked and continues to be answered. It has led to the current obsession with the deficit, with every public policy idea discussed and assessed only in terms of whether it will make the deficit go up or down, as if anyone really knows. The deficit obsession is the ultimate dumbing-down of political life.

To be sure, the question of cost is not without legitimacy: even an estimate of cost is better than no idea at all. But it should not be the only question, or even the most important. The most important questions are: what will it do? whom will it help? will it work? Similarly, in abolishing or cutting back a program, the important question is not what will it save but whom will it hurt. The numbers, like the puck, are not the only thing worth watching.

Obviously, these are more difficult questions to answer, requiring more understanding and more study. But the people are capable of understanding the answers if the politicians and the reporters are capable of coming up with them. Our leaders, with the memory of Meech Lake and Charlottetown clearly in mind, should be only too conscious of what happens when the people are treated as if their intelligence can’t be trusted.