Today’s discussion might be confused for a good old-fashioned rant, but bear with me. It does connect back to writing – honestly.
A few days ago, two of my cats needed to go to the vet. Nothing serious – just a routine checkup and vaccination booster. But while I was there, something odd struck me about the waiting room. There was the usual crop of posters, advertisements, and newspaper clippings. Then I noticed a large colourful display that kept drawing my eye. There were cartoon drawings of slugs in bowler hats, shifty-looking snails with cigars clamped in their dentures, and fleas drawn in the style of Tim Burton directs The Thing. However, it took a while for me to work out what the advertisement was actually trying to achieve – namely, to alert pet owners to the various parasites and parasite-borne diseases that require veterinary attention.
By the time our kitties were back in their boxes, I had decided why the poster wasn’t doing its job very well:
1) the purpose and message behind the display kept getting lost in the swirl of bright shapes and colours.
2) there were no photographic references of the parasites in question – it was all stylised cartoons who looked like escapees from Monsters Inc.
This got me thinking back to last summer, when I attended an event co-hosted by the Royal Society of Biology and the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO). As part of the day’s activities, we were treated to a talk by author and wildlife campaigner Dr Chris Du Feu, entitled “Little People in the Wildlife Classroom”. Dr Feu’s message was very clear: we need to stop dumbing-down to people, especially children, if we are to raise a new generation of informed and curious minds. His words echoed clearly in my head as I walked past that poster at the vets, and kept me thinking all the way back to my keyboard.
So what is dumbing-down, and why is it a problem?
Let’s just analyse for a second what made the parasite poster condescending rather than informative. The poster, like all advertisements, had to make a few assumptions about its audience. In this case, it’s likely that the audience will be semi-responsible pet owners aged over eighteen, and capable of at least part-funding the vet bills. However, in my opinion the style chosen to convey that message was not appropriate to this audience.
There’s an old phrase: when you assume something, you make an ass out of u and me. In this case, the underlying assumption was that the adult audience either could not cope with or would be nonplussed by actual photographs of the parasites and insects that might harm their pets. I don’t know about you, but I’d personally prefer a photograph of what flea eggs actually look like for those times my cat gets itchy, than the poster’s idea that I should be on the alert for tiny bowler hats and cigar ash. The poster is dumbing-down, or condescending to, its intended audience by treating them as younger and/or dumber than the message it is trying to convey.
Dr Feu discussed this problem in his talk “Little People in the Wildlife Classroom”. He had noticed a tendency for kid-friendly outdoor- and wildlife-related activity sessions to be condescending, inaccurate, or both. His discussion wasn’t a firebrand counter-attack on a deliberately malicious practise, but an eloquent observation that, even in the most well-meaning situations, kids are often treated differently – i.e. less capable of understanding – than adults, particularly when it comes to nature and science.
The most common example cited by Dr Feu was the ‘mini-beast hunt’. Look through any local council’s spring-summer-autumn activity programme and you’ll almost certainly find nature walks designed for kids. Such walks are usually led by a local specialist teacher at a nature reserve or parkland. The aim is to turn over stones and rummage through leaf litter to find invertebrates – worms, slugs, snails, arachnids, insects. Sometimes the kids tally up their findings. Other times they just get treated to details about the creatures’ lives and habits. Most kids get a real kick out of what they learn, and many will experience a deep thrill at this hands-on approach to understanding nature.
So why, Dr Feu argued, are these really excellent activities almost always called ‘mini-beast hunts’ instead of ‘invertebrate hunts’? The assumptions are that kids will struggle with long words like ‘invertebrate’, that they won’t be interested that it means ‘without a backbone’, or that the term ‘mini-beast’ is cuter and thus more appealing to a kid’s imagination.
In my opinion, these assumptions don’t hold any water. The organisers of such events might do well to consider that these same kids often have no difficulty in recalling, word-perfectly, the names and abilities of more than two-hundred Pokemon characters, many of whom spend a lot of their time tearing their opponents to char-grilled shreds. Somehow, I don’t think telling children that a diamond-backed spider’s Latin name is Araneus diadematus would tax those kids’ minds even for a second.
Write with authority, not condescension
The point I am rambling around to making is that, as writers, we can never allow ourselves to assume too much or too little about our audience. This is especially true when we are writing about a fairly obscure topic that we know inside-out, but that our readers might have never encountered before. We might come across as smug and superior when we assume that everyone can follow along. However, the pendulum can swing the other way, and we can risk sounding like an adult baby-talking about apps and iPhones to a room full of jaded teenagers.
The middle ground is to write with authority, not condescension. For example, a character in your fiction might know a lot about outdoor survival. You can convey this expertise by the way they behave and what they do, without having them talk through each and every step to the reader, e.g. ‘She made sure the wood was dry before she struck her first match, otherwise it would have been impossible to get the fire going’ is dumbing-down to practically everybody. A better approach would be, ‘She stacked plenty of dry wood and the fire caught with the very first match – a good omen!’
If your writing is compelling enough and generally well-written, then it’s a good bet that a reader who experiences a jolt over an unfamiliar word or situation will trust you to unfold the meaning in due course. However, even if you don’t spell things out to the last detail, your readers should feel empowered and compelled to find out more by themselves. Some of my favourite authors are the ones that have me reaching for a dictionary every few chapters; they are the ones who challenge me to expand my knowledge by making me feel curious, not inferior.
You should never feel the need to substitute or over-simplify a concept – to dumb-down – when your audience expects to be treated with a modicum of intelligence. Unless you are writing a picture book for toddlers, don’t be afraid to challenge your readers with new or esoteric ideas. As long as you also treat them with respect, you’ll both be in for an interesting journey.
The Dangers of Dumbing-Down by J. R. Milward is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.