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Are we dumbing down?
Our society and our literature and our culture are being dumbed down, and the causes are very complex.
[ 2006-07-24 16:51 ]

Are we dumbing down?

Reader question:
In this sentence - "Our society and our literature and our culture are being dumbed down, and the causes are very complex" - what does "dumned down" mean?

My comments:
"Dumb down", which is not in most dictionaries, is obviously opposite of "wise up", which is. The term is a slang (colloquial and informal) expression for literally "becoming dumber". It's a usually derogatory term describing the oversimplification of stories in the news media and other areas of popular culture.

"Dumbing down" is something that is perceived to be happening in almost all forms of pop culture in modern societies everywhere, east or west. In pop music, for example, howling is considered singing - listen to rap music, if you don't mind. If you ask literature lovers of the old generation (who recite poems and even write their own), today's pop literature writers might be considered illiterate altogether.

And there are all sorts of less-than-brainy programs on TV. Almost all top-rating evening programs on television are culpable of this "crime" of dumbing down our culture. There are exceptions, of course, but they tend to be feature programs, which are non-newsy and generally commanding meager ratings.

By genre, sports commentary is full of gibberish nonsense and groundless guesswork. Also free of facts are some historical cinematic dramas, with soap operas from Hong Kong and Taiwan especially astounding in their lack of respect for history and research - which apparently lead to free-flow in plot and dialogue, a trump card to pull an audience.

Speaking by anchorperson, programs hosted by people who have become or are becoming household names tend to be "dumb-down" programs, such as the slapstick talk show hosted by Liu Yiwei in Shanghai.

The causes for the dumbing down of cultures are primarily attributed to commercialism in the form of cheap entertainment. With a growing variety of forms of entertainment to choose from, people's attention span begins to decrease. As a result, TV, newspapers and other forms of mass media begin to tell simplified (often oversimplified) stories to feed this impatient audience. This, as a phenomenon has been happening in China for 20 years and in the West 50 years or even longer. In turn and over time this process has gradually led to what old-timers call poor taste in arts and dropping intellectual standards as a whole.

To the cultured of previous generations, this is unacceptable. I myself, however, don't see it as that much of a problem. I believe finer tastes come from selection, from being choosy and picky. To be choosy and picky, however, one has to have a variety to select from. At least today we have a variety to select from, something we never had before, speaking from the point of view of the populace rather than the lettered few, that is.

With this variety to choose from, therefore, I'm of hope that there'll be enough audience to grow tired of, for example, the prevalent funny ha-ha comedy to go back to the old-school, aha-now-I-see-it type of humor.

Jokes passed on via mobile phone, for example, are usually dumb-downs of the low-brow, poor-taste, funny ha-ha type, ones you don't have to think to laugh if they are funny at all. But the other day I was happily surprised to receive one that is more sophisticated than usual. It runs like this:

"After intense investigation and with written statements from both players, soccer's world governing body of FIFA has finally found out what Marco Materazzi said to Zinedine Zidane that led to the infamous headbutting which floored the former and resulted in the latter's sending off in the World Cup final match between Italy and France earlier this month.

"What Materazzi said to Zidane was not of a racist nature, concludes FIFA. Nor did he invoke Zidane's mother or sister in his remarks but Materazzi did persist in asking for reply to a question of perhaps a more insulting nature. According to FIFA, Materazzi said to the former World Footballer of the Year: "Hey, Zizou (Zidane's nickname), there's a rumor floating around that you are going to play in the Chinese Super League after the World Cup, is it true? Is it true? Is it true?"

Well, that may pass off as sophisticated humor, considering the current low standard of the art in general and of soccer jokes in particular.

Here, now, are examples involving "dumb down":

In this Guardian Observer magazine story (The thinking classes: too clever by half) dated September 12, 2004, its subtitle reads:

"A study attacks today's intellectuals for being too willing to dumb down. Rubbish, it's just a new style of democracy."

In this story titled "Dumbing down American readers" (Boston Globe, September 24, 2003), Harold Bloom (Google to find out who he is) questioned the US National Book Foundation's decision to honor Stephen King (author of Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption and many best-selling novels). Bloom wrote:

"THE DECISION to give the National Book Foundation's annual award for 'distinguished contribution' to Stephen King is extraordinary, another low in the shocking process of dumbing down our cultural life. I've described King in the past as a writer of penny dreadfuls, but perhaps even that is too kind. He shares nothing with Edgar Allan Poe. What he is an immensely inadequate writer on a sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph, book-by-book basis. The publishing industry has stooped terribly low to bestow on King a lifetime award that has previously gone to the novelists Saul Bellow and Philip Roth and to playwright Arthur Miller. By awarding it to King they recognize nothing but the commercial value of his books, which sell in the millions but do little more for humanity than keep the publishing world afloat. If this is going to be the criterion in the future, then perhaps next year the committee should give its award for distinguished contribution to Danielle Steel, and surely the Nobel Prize for literature should go to J.K. Rowling...."


About the author:

Zhang Xin is Trainer at chinadaily.com.cn. He has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at: zhangxin@chinadaily.com.cn, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.

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