Occasionally I feel in the need of a rant. Most recently my wrath has been incurred by a BBC4 Programme entitled In Their Own Words. I have decided to try to give my ire a more theoretical and, hopefully, objective framework by considering the topic of dumbing-down.
Dumbing-down is a much misused term to which I often take exception. Its most usual use appears to me to be not only intellectual snobbery but tautologous. Thus it is used to describe popular entertainments, usually on television, which never set out to be anything other than entertainment, and make no claims for any weight, whether intellectual or artistic. So, for instance, programmes like Big Brother, The X-Factor (and other members of the Cowell stable) and so on are cited as examples of the phenomenon. This is absurd. It would be perfectly fair to label such fare as dumb and it has no pretensions to be anything else. This is not to say that there are not good and bad examples of this within its own parameters. And certainly not for me to deny that I am a big fan of some of these programmes or that they can make outstanding television. But something which starts as dumb cannot be dumbed-down! As remarked this would be a tautology.
So what can be said to be dumbing-down? Very simply, when a subject which does have intellectual depth and weight is simplified and ‘popularised’ to the extent that, at a minimum the subject is hopelessly distorted, and at worst loses any and all connection with the real thing. In Their Own Words is a classic example of this. The programme was sold as being an attempt to tell the story of the 20thC British novel through the writer’s own words, by plundering the radio and television archives. This sounded like a truly fascinating venture and I sat down to watch with considerable anticipation. The first programme began with a fairly average summary of the Bloomsbury Group and an all too brief excerpt from a radio talk by Virginia Woolf. From there it went rapidly downhill. This became instantly apparent when a chunk of the programme was devoted to Barbara Cartland! Now a serious study of popular literature in the 20thC would also make a fascinating programme, but to attempt to pretend that Barbara Cartland and Virginia Woolf share a part in the story of anything is a risible absurdity. What has followed has been a clichéd and simplified social history linked in to various big names, or when no big name was available to fit the not only clichéd but politically correct version of history being peddled, a small one. Any discussion of the technical developments within the novel form have been completely ignored. Serious and important writers have been reduced to ciphers for a bland and unchallenging sociological history. The programme has no weight or depth of any kind whatever. Even as a history of popular fiction it is an absurdity as while Cartland and various sci-fi writers have been covered there has been no mention of the mystery, which is in fact much the most popular genre of the 20thC and enjoyed an astonishingly wide readership in the inter-war years. But this is a minor cavil compared with my substantive objection, which is to the way in which a serious, interesting, worthwhile, complicated and challenging subject has been made weightless, simple and undemanding. This is real dumbing-down.
It rests on the assumption that people are not prepared to invest time and effort in something difficult, something hard. This is incredibly patronising; this is treating the audience as fools and simpletons. Serious literature is and should be hard; it should demand an effort. The attempt to pretend this is not so is demeaning both to the subject and the audience. The BBC now has the luxury of a channel, BBC4, on which it can freely present material which will have a small audience, which will be challenging and difficult. To squander this in a misguided search for popularity is a disgrace.
And In Their Own Words is not the only example which I can cite from the last few weeks; its radio equivalent was a discussion about Byron on Radio 3 (again supposedly a serious channel) about which I wrote a couple of weeks ago…
………….. a discussion I heard on Radio 3……on 9th August, a large part of which was to devoted to vampirism and a contention that Byron’s chief interest lay in the fact that some of the Oriental protagonists paved the way for The Twilight Saga! A discussion of Byron on the supposedly most intelligent radio network in Britain in which Don Juan was not mentioned.
This then is the real dumbing-down: when a serious subject is trivialised and simplified in a patronising belief that an audience is too dim to handle the difficult and challenging. It is pernicious and, unlike the denigration of good popular entertainment, something to be utterly condemned.