“It’s too long.” I get that often, about things I write. And I do think about it. I do try to shorten stuff, cut away things that aren’t relevant, just keep the essentials. Take the criticism to heart as they say. And yes, sometimes it’s true, the texts do need to be shortened, but sometimes it’s just a load of bullshit. A thing people say because they are too lazy to make the effort it would take to get through the whole text. I hear it about books too: “No, I haven’t read Dostoyevsky, his books are too long.” And no, I’m not comparing myself with Dostoyevsky, I’m just saying that by being lazy, you’re most definitely missing out. Sure, some things can be said in just a few sentences, but some things really need a longer and more elaborate type of argumentation. Some things are too complex to allow themselves for brief summarized types of presentations. It all depends on what the theme and the topic is. For instance, it’s really easy to define the meaning of life, in fact all it takes is one word: enjoy. But if you want to dig a bit deeper and really examine what that would mean you will need a lot more words. It all depends on the objective.
But I suppose the objective is indeed the issue. If you really want to give readers an opportunity to think for themselves you have to give them a bigger set of facts and/or arguments. I was reading a humungously long essay by Arundhati Roy in India Online about the Maoist guerilla in central India (here) and even though it took me well over an hour to read it I guarantee that this essay couldn’t have been any shorter because that’s exactly how complicated this situation really is. And if the objective is to provide your readers with an understanding of the level of complexity in this situation, which I’m pretty sure is the case, you have to give them the fully story. If you don’t you’ll just be another voice in the choir of ignorance. And as a reader, my obligation is to take this information in and draw my own conclusions. To use my own intellectual capabilities to try to make sense of it all in my own head. That’s the whole point; to actually think. It’s what we’re supposed to do with information; process it. Use our brains.
But I have this creeping suspicion that we are getting really lazy, intellectually speaking. We are so used to being fed simplified versions of everything that we shun from anything that would require any real effort on our part. Communication has taken on the form of advertisement slogans. The paradigm is that everything should be short and simple. So that “people can understand it”. But it’s one thing to say ‘change’ and another thing to actually elaborate on what that change would actually entail. And when it comes to society and politics the elaboration bit is pretty fucking crucial. If we are too lazy to process that information, then we’re really in big trouble.
I know I sound like a complete elitist asshole now, but I honestly think TV is the one of the main villains here. The TV format doesn’t really allow for lengthier expositions or elaborate explanations, especially not the news. All we get are glimpses. Some people are protesting against their government on a square in some middle eastern country and the police are shooting at them. But exactly what the protests are about we never really find out, not beyond a short comment about the protesters desire for democracy, we’ve already moved on to the story about bad weather over northern Europe. There have been floods. Again. But there’s no time to have a look at frequencies, to get clarity on if the notion that this seems to be happening a lot more lately is true or not. No time for anything that requires any reflective efforts. How could there be? There’s no way to pace TV watching, it happens right now and as a viewer you have no influence over the information feed, you’re just being showered in it, and in order to make sure you don’t get frustrated you’re only being fed things you don’t have to think about all that much. No effort, just one-way stimulus. If you read, you can adjust your speed. You can put the text down and ponder, reread passages, skim, go fast or slow, you can do what ever you need to ensure the information feed fits your exact preferences. Written texts are more flexible like that, that’s why written texts are the preferred medium in which to present complex matters. TV very rarely is. TV is first and foremost about entertainment, about keeping us stimulated. And it requires absolutely no effort on our part. All we have to do is sit there and be entertained. Any time, any day, the TV is always there to feed you. In spite of the fact that our access to vast amounts information has most likely never been greater or easier than it is today, most people still use TV as their main source of information. The path of minimum resistance. Having it all served up on a plate cut into small consumption size pieces. No need to even chew, just sit back and swallow. This is what we have been taught, how we have been socialized over the last 50 or so years. And in the intermissions we are being told what items we need, what we are supposed to desire, in order to make our lives complete. Good consumers supporting the economy by wasting even more resources and money on things we don’t actually need. How did that song lyric from the early 90s go? “Television, the drug of the nation. Breeding ignorance and feeding radiation.”* Yes, that’s how it went.
In our society a lot more time is spent watching TV than reading and I think this has done things to our attention span. We get distracted, we get bored, we can’t concentrate. Like some sort of collective attention deficiency syndrome has descended upon us. But having said all this, I still refuse to believe that we,humanity, are no longer capable of processing longer chunks of information. Sure, we’ve gotten lazy, no doubt about that, but we haven’t completely lost the ability now have we? Because that would be tragic. The ability to process an argument or a text that’s longer than a fucking twitter feed is pretty much essential for any type of brain activity that goes beyond a mere “oh, that’s cool” type of reflection. And we need that ability. Desperately. And if we don’t want to lose it we need to practice, we need to make sure we use our brains, our intellects, to think for ourselves. Because questioning, reflection, is the only way to make sure we don’t turn into a herd of sheep. I have said it before, but if we really want to live up to the name we have given ourselves, homo sapiens (the wise/reflective man), we need to make sure we actually use our intellectual capacities. So the next time you think “oh, that’s too long”, try to contemplate whether it’s actually true, or whether you’re not just being lazy. And you might want to start by doing yourself the favor of reading Roy’s essay.
* Disposable Heroes of Hiphopricy, “Television, the Drug of the Nation”