Thursday, 22 January 2015

A dangling conversation about Mrs Roosevelt and parking outside Cullingworth Primary School


For many years I subscribed to that famous Eleanor Roosevelt dictum - you know the one:

Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.

Now leaving aside just what an unpleasant gossipy bitch Mrs Roosevelt was, I've now come to the conclusion that this dictum is a monumental load of tommyrot. And this realisation came from listening to a song I really don't like all that much - Paul Simon's 'The Dangling Conversation'. In the third verse Simon tells us:

Yes we speak of things that matter,
With words that must be said,
"Can analysis be worthwhile?"
"Is the theater really dead?"
And how the room is softly faded
And I only kiss your shadow,
I cannot feel your hand,
You're a stranger now unto me
Lost in The Dangling Conversation
And the superficial sighs
In the borders of our lives.
The couple in the song lived absolutely according to Mrs Roosevelt's dictum yet Paul Simon suggests that the result of this is that what they considered to be grand thoughts about important matters were, in truth, utterly superficial. What matters is more personal, more direct and much much more difficult to discuss - how we feel about others, how people relate and how this affects our lives.

This morning I turned down the opportunity to go on the radio for a discussion about 'Charlie Hebdo', free speech and all that stuff. I did so because some neighbours of the primary school in Cullingworth have complained about parking by parents delivering their children to the school. An utterly mundane matter of no strategic significance but, I decided, far more important than pontificating about grand things on the radio.

At the primary school I've got a fighting chance of doing something to make the situation a little better, to allow my neighbours (and the school's neighbours) to rub along together a little better. And this matters far more to people than whether or not I think it's OK to publish cartoons that might upset someone. Those people are the small minded folk that Mrs Roosevelt viewed with such snooty disdain - they want to tell me about the man who parks his 4x4 on the pavement or the taxi driver who always ignores the double yellow lines. This is because these things matter.

When the grand people on the radio or television - or those apeing them like the couple with the dangling conversation in Paul Simon's song - talk about grand ideas they forget that those grand ideas, when acted on, result in real effects on real people. Indeed that, were the ideas presented to those mums at the school gate or the couple in the council house round the corner, they'd get short shrift - out-of-touch would perhaps be the most polite response.

Because us grand folk have Mrs Roosevelt's disdain for such small-mindedness (too often thinking that those people simply won't understand so why bother), we resort to conducting political debate through dumbed down slogan and pithy soundbites. This is the world of 'not right or left but right or wrong', 'long term economic plans' and 'for the many, not the few' - endlessly repeated advertising mantras that mean little but make a pleasing sound.
We pretend that people like what we're saying by the liberal use of opinion polling as post hoc justification of the slogan or soundbite. Yet this brand marketing is weak, inconsistent and ineffective compared to that from big brand owners - put simply Coca-Cola, McDonalds and Persil are more trusted than any political brand anywhere in the world. And this is because, unlike those brands, political parties treat their customers - the voters - with Mrs Roosevelt's disdain.

None of this is to suggest that we shouldn't discuss grand ideas but we need to try to include more people in those discussions rather than, as is typical, using words and concepts seemingly designed to close the debate off to any but the cognoscenti. Whether it's a debate about 'culture' or a discussion of macroeconomics, we should try at least to use words people understand rather than pretending that language is somehow a barrier to the analysis of the subject in question. In the end - as so often with these things - someone has made the point much better - here's George Orwell:

A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.
Above all, it seems to me, we need to spend more time talking about (and to, and with) people and their daily lives and not pretending that somehow this is a lower form of talk reserved for people who aren't nearly as clever as we are. For, by the use of that grand language, we fall into Orwell's trap and become fools. Fools no-one else much can understand but fools - snobbish fools - nonetheless.


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