Dumbing Down.

After my last post about me giving up smoking, my hairy, hippy friend, Gary, remarked that I seemed to have "dumbed down" somewhat. So, being a little flustered by this observation, I thought I'd write something about the phenomenon of "dumbing down". When, for example, did this phrase start being so widely used? And, also, why? Being a relatively new phrase, could it be that it describes something peculiar to our own times?
Well, according to Wikipedia, dumbing down describes "the deliberate deminishment of the intellectual level of literature, film, schooling and education, news, and other aspects of culture". Apparently, the phrase originated in the 1930s, when it was used by motion picture screenplay writers as slang to describe the process of revising a screenplay so that it would appeal to those of little education or intelligence. Indeed, judging by most mainstream Hollywood output, it would appear that the "dumbing down" of movies is very much still a process at work today. However, that is not to say that there aren't films out there that would profess to qualify as "high" art, and I suppose there is a distinction to be made between more serious "art house" fare and less intellectually challenging mainstream movies.
This, then, points us towards the distinction which was made, in previous times, between high and low culture. With the development of new ideas in postmodern theory, however, that distinction became increasingly blurred, leading some to adopt a stance of cultural relativism, where, to quote my friend from the Pathways Group, "no difference in value between Mahler and Madonna" was perceived. According to my friend this had, in his point of view, a "disastrous influence in contributing to the 'dumbing down' phenomenon".
Being a fervent leftist my friend pointed me towards some thinkers who had a disdain for mass culture, like Theodor Adorno, who lambasted the "culture industry". Also, being a fan of modern classical music, he gave me a thought-provoking quote from the composer, Schoenberg, who said, "If it is art, it is not for all, and if it is for all, it is not art". Such arguments would, obviously, be in direct opposition to postmodern relativist notions of the equality of all cultural production.          
It has also, I suppose, been a long-held belief of those on the political right that standards in education are dropping. Schooling, according to such folk, is definitely dumbing down. However, when I was at university, we were largely taught that such things were really right-wing fantasy, and that things such as levels of literacy had gradually improved, rather than diminished, with time. However, both me and my leftist friend do seem to have noticed a certain dumbing down of educational standards, even in the relatively short period since we were both in full-time education.
So is "dumbing down" actually something we should be worried about? I can only speak for myself, and speaking for myself, I think one is right to have certain fears about the apparent stupidity of popular culture. With our television flooded with silly talk and game shows, our news media increasingly shallow and celebrity driven, and our music increasingly commercial and homogenised, is it any wonder that people of intelligence might bemoan what has become of contemporary life? I'm sure my left-wing friend at the Pathways Group might agree that such things do little for our own social, political and economic awareness, and rather perhaps keep us all in a state of apathy. But, since the birth of our media and technology saturated world, have things ever really been different? Can we say there was some golden era when popular culture was not so silly? All I can say is, perhaps not. But, if you want to read something really clever, why not try the link to The Pathways Group site on the right of this page, where my friend has recently penned another intellectual polemic against the neoliberal hegemony. In keeping with the purpose of this blog, I would just add that his writing proves that mental ill health, for one thing, is certainly not an indicator of low intelligence, and I'm sure you'll find that in those pages at least, the spirit of the intellectual lives on.               


klahanie said…
Dear David,

Ah my flustered friend. I have read your your article thoroughly and of course, you bring up many points to ponder.

The phenomenon of "dumbing down" is, I believe, based on a society where we have sadly become used to seeing silly 'reality' shows, where the alleged role models have what seems to have endearing 'qualities' that a lot of folks relate to. All you need to do in the new dumbed down world is repeat a lot of tedious expressions such as, "Oh my god!" "At the end of the day.." "To be honest" And "um", "ya know".."ya know what I'm sayin'?"

And the irony in all of this is that there are those with mental health issues who write with articulate candour, while certain alleged 'normal' folks prefer the dumbing down.

As you know, in a tongue-in-cheek way, I have dumbed down my site. Not always, yet when I do and yes it's satirical, I can get a lot more reaction. Sad perhaps, but true. The main thing is David, at the end of the day, to be honest, you must continue to stick with what feels comfortable with your writing. Ya know what I'm sayin'?

Take care, David. Talk soon.

Your supposedly hairy, hippy friend, Gary
Dixie said…
Dear David,

Thank you. Well said. I fully agree and appreciate your assessment.

For me to comment further is like the story behind addiction: "One (word) is too many and a thousand (words) are never enough.

On a personal note, you haven't dumbed down. I still read your post at least twice before I comment. And... I'm trying not to rant and rave on other's postings.

Reading "1984" really affected me; just completed it three months ago.

Thank you and take care,

bazza said…
Hi David. Interesting stuff.
As a first point I would say that worse than 'dumbing down' is 'kitsch'; lower art masquerading as high art. I think that definition comes from Walter Benjamin who was a contemporary compatriot of Theodore Adorno.
Secondly I think that it would be a mistake for film and other producers to conflate 'poorly educated' with 'unintelligent'. I think they follow the dictum: You can not underestimate the audiences intelligence!
Filally can I say to Dixie, if she reads this, that after 1984 she should read Brave New World
Best regards, Bazza.
David said…
Hi Gary,
Ah yes, the reality show. As you may know, I once did a post on that very phenomenon, and called it "I'm a Schizophrenic, Get Me Out of Here". So, I totally get where you're coming from. Ya know what I'm sayin', Gare.
Anyway, I hope things are not too bad with your good self, and hopefully I'll speak with you soon.
Very Best Wishes,
David said…
Hi Dixie,
Thanks for telling me that I haven't dumbed down. And I would agree that "1984" is a very good book. Apparently it was not Orwell's vision of some dystopic future, but rather a satire on what he saw in contemporary life, 1948 becoming 1984. Perhaps you see some paralells with today's world?
Thanks Dixie, and Very Best Wishes, your way,
David said…
Hi bazza,
My friend did also mention Benjamin's work, particularly "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", which apparently gave a more optimistic view of popular culture than that espoused by Adorno.
Also, I would totally agree that you should not underestimate the audience's intelligence. This is something I always keep in mind when writing this blog, but which, it seems, many Hollywood moviemakers don't.
Thanks bazza.
Very Best Wishes,
Dixie said…

Just to let you... I am back.
Thank you kindly for your comment, left on my blog.

In all sincerity,

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