As writers should we be concerned about the dumbing down of society? Do we even believe this is occurring?
Some time ago, I had been driving in the car with a friend of mine who was a development exec at one of the studios. Somehow we got onto a discussion of whether or not rendezvous is spelled with a Z ? Try as I might, I could not convince her that there was a Z in that word, until we finally got to my place and I could prove it to her with a dictionary. Of course, this was in ye olden days before iPads and smart phones.
Another time I was in a meeting with a story editor. The question came up, what's the difference between East and West Germany, this when there still was an East and West Germany. She had been reading a script and wasn't sure. So I had to tell her, yet with or without my little history lesson she was going to pass judgment on another writer's screenplay.
A similar thing occurred when another production executive asked me whose side we had been on, the North or South Vietnamese. Another wanted to know who fought on which sides in World War II – things anyone with a high school education should know. All these people had degrees from good colleges. And I could mention so many more similar incidents.
When I was working for a nationally syndicated entertainment radio show the producer/host called another writer and myself into the office and dressed us down for using too many "big" and multisyllabic words. We were trying to raise people up instead of lowering them down and instead we were dressed down. Actually, we weren't even trying to do that. We were just writing the way we thought and we didn't think we were using such big words that people wouldn't know them.
Eventually, I ended up going to pitch meetings or other meetings and dumbing down everything I had to say. After all, I didn't want to insult the hand that was feeding me.
In a different arena, my wife and I have been in our current house eight years now. But one of the significant things I remember when we were looking at houses was how many had few to no books in them. And eight years ago the whole country wasn't wired as it is today. There weren't e-books and iPads on which to store your thousand book library out of sight. And before that, in the mid-90s, when we were looking for our previous house, it was the same. No books in sight.
I thought this odd at the time. Now I think it's scary. True, people have the internet today for instant reference. But there's something to be said for having a store of basic and shared knowledge in your head that you can recall in an instant, instead of having to look it up here or there. Granted, we cannot know everything about everything, but there should be a rudimentary cultural base that the vast majority of society is tuned into. And why not use bigger words sometimes? I remember sitting and reading books with a dictionary at my side, writing lists of words and looking them up. That's how you learn, how you expand your vocabulary – your knowledge base. So why dumb everything down to the lowest common denominator? Is that really the society we want to live in?
As writers, I would think we'd want a literate customer base of people who will more often than not get our literary and other allusions, our historical references, etc. I think we should challenge people, both our readers and our editors, producers, etc., to uplift rather than pander to the lowest common denominator. And not succumb to the dictates of those who want everything dumbed down.
And yes, Virginia, there is, indeed, a Z in rendezvous –- look it up.