Saturday, January 25, 2014

Nixonland 7: Plain Speech vs. Eloquence

On page 224 of Nixonland, Rick Perlstein quotes George Wallace’s comments about riots and lawlessness in the late 1960′s:

“You people work hard, you save your money, you teach your children to respect the law.  Then when someone goes out and burns down half a city and murders someone, swaydo-intellectuals explain it away by sayin’ the killer didn’t get any watermelons to eat when he was ten years old….The Supreme Court is fixing it so you can’t do anything about people who set cities on fire.”

Perlstein then remarks: “It sure made Nixon look respectable when he couched the same sentiments in four-syllable words.”

Perlstein makes this point more than once in his book: that Nixon was expressing George Wallace’s sentiments in refined, eloquent language.  That makes me wonder: What is the better means of communication?  Is it plain speaking, or are eloquence and big words the way to go?

I recall a scene on The Cosby Show, which I watched years ago.  Rudy had a friend over, and this friend’s father was the editor of a newspaper.  Rudy and her friend were bothering Theo, who was working on a paper about his first day of school.  Theo was writing was he was at the brink of his destiny, and Rudy’s friend did not know what that meant.  Theo explained that it meant he was scared.  “Then why don’t you just say you were scared?”, she asked.  Theo responded that his teacher would not like his paper as much if he did that.  Rudy’s friend then shared with Theo her father’s wisdom: “My Dad says keep it simple: Only people with small minds use big words.”

And, in the newspaper business, keeping it simple is the way to go.  Granted, newspaper articles don’t express things quite like George Wallace did, for newspapers have to sound objective and respectable.  But they try to explain current events and ideas in easy-to-understand language.

But there is an appeal in eloquence and big words, within certain contexts.  While what George Wallace said undoubtedly resonated with a number of voters, Nixon sounded more like a statesman with intelligence.  When writing academic papers, plain speaking is not necessarily the way to go, for I have to sound like I’m smart and have a grasp of complexity and nuance.  I will say, though, that there are plenty of times when academics don’t want to sound abstruse, when they express their thoughts in a down-to-earth, accessible manner.  This is helpful to me, not because I can’t understand them when they are abstruse, but rather because their plain, down-to-earth language reminds me that their ideas are part of the real world and relate to the real world, not some inaccessible world that is above most people’s heads.

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