Will Brevity Be The Death Of Thinking?

Santa Clarita Signal • Opinion Column • Ethically Speaking •  Sunday, Nov. 27, 2011

Brevity and Thinking

David W. Hegg

“Papa, hold you up?” With those four words my granddaughter of not quite 2 years communicated in no uncertain terms just what she wanted of me. She wanted me to hold her, but not sitting down. She wanted to be held by me, standing up. Having just spent 3 wonderful days with my kids and their kids I am still marveling at the wonder of language, or rather, the incredible way our kids learn to speak intelligibly.

My granddaughter knows around 100 words which isn’t much of a vocabulary unless you are not quite 2. Then it seems to be sufficient. She has no trouble getting the various adults in her life to do whatever she wants. And she does it with very few words. There is a lesson to be learned here.

As a writer and speaker I have come to love words. And maybe I love them just a bit too much. At least one of my readers has complained about the length of my columns so maybe I need to pay more attention to brevity and not worry so much about clarity. But here’s the problem. There is a great difference between communicating to be understood, and communicating so as not to be misunderstood.

When my granddaughter speaks, everyone in the room stops to listen, and they also work really hard to understand what she is saying. In fact, most will repeat what she has said to make sure there is understanding. This is the way children learn vocabulary, and eventually, correct pronunciation, grammar, and syntax. This “speak and repeat” regimen becomes part of a parent’s daily routine and eventually, if the parent speaks well, so will the child. But while this is essential to learning a language, it is not the standard communication cycle of adult life. Most of our language use is one-sided. Email, texts, Facebook messages, letters, and this column are all examples. I sit here in my office typing on my computer, and I am communicating to people I don’t know and probably will never meet. I have no chance to see by your facial expressions if you are following my thought, much less agreeing or disagreeing. This means I have no chance to correct misunderstandings so I have to do all I can to make sure I not only am communicating, but doing so in a way that can’t be easily misunderstood. And unfortunately, that means using too many words especially if the subject has a complexity to it.

This is more clearly seen in the difference between reading a comic strip, and reading G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy or John Owen’s Mortification of Sin. The comic is simple, hopefully funny, and easy to understand. But humorous strips can never communicate complex ideas of the type that have occupied human society and intellectual discourse for ages. On the other hand, if you read Chesterton or Owen your mind will be put through its paces trying to grasp the intricacies of the topics and arguments.

Working with words is a job all of us take on throughout our lives. And today’s technology only makes it more apparent just how caught up we are in the dance of instant communication. We feel naked and at risk whenever we forget to take our phones with us. Yet, instead of becoming more able to engage in lengthy, meaningful dialogue on important subjects, we are becoming more and more like my granddaughter. Now we have to reduce everything down to 140 characters so that it can be texted. Our political discussions have been reduced to 30 second responses and sound bites. Brevity is king but at what cost?

We are in danger of making everything simple, of losing our ability to think deeply. In our desire for quick and simple we are minimizing critical thought and argument, and maximizing clever and cute. It certainly works for my granddaughter, but here’s the irony of it. In order to make it in this world, she’ll have to get better and better at using words, forming sentences, and putting arguments and critical solutions together. By the very nature of things, she will develop more complex language skills in order to be successful. She won’t always sit and listen as I read Good Night Moon to her. Someday she and I will discuss the merits of John Calvin’s Institutes. I only hope that our society will still recognize and appreciate lengthy discourse by the time she’s ready to participate.