Friday, September 7, 2012

The Costs of Talking Down to Your Audience

On Wednesday night, Bill Clinton spoke for more than 45 minutes to the Democratic National Convention--and his speech was, by political standards, astonishingly free from major distortions or misrepresentations of the facts. described it in this way:

Former President Bill Clinton’s stem-winding nomination speech was a fact-checker’s nightmare: lots of effort required to run down his many statistics and factual claims, producing little for us to write about.

Republicans will find plenty of Clinton’s scorching opinions objectionable. But with few exceptions, we found his stats checked out.
The speeches last night, by Biden and Obama, weren't quite as clean (although arguably far cleaner than many recent political speeches).

What I want to consider is why Clinton's speech is so (relatively) clean with respect to the facts. I think part of the reason is that Clinton is willing to take the time (too much time, some say) to lay out his criticisms and arguments with precision--something he's willing to do, in part, because he is less inclined to talk down to his audiences than politician have historically tended to be.

Take one of the problems with Biden's speech. Here's how describes it:

Biden joined the chorus of off-key convention speakers who have attacked Romney for wanting to raise taxes on the middle class, even though Romney says he won’t do that.

Biden: Folks, Governor Romney believes it’s OK to raise taxes on middle classes by $2,000 in order to pay for … another trillion-dollar tax cut for the very wealthy.

That’s exactly the opposite of what Romney actually says. In his speech accepting the presidential nomination at the Republican National Convention, he said:

Romney, Aug. 30: I will not raise taxes on the middle class.

Biden refers to an analysis by the Tax Policy Center of a plan that, as Romney also promises, cuts income tax rates across the board by 20 percent and pays for it by eliminating and reducing tax deductions and credits. TPC found that such a plan would “increase the tax burdens on middle- and/or lower-income taxpayers.” Under one scenario, it said that “taxpayers with children who make less than $200,000 would pay, on average, $2,000 more in taxes.”
But that’s not evidence that Romney wants to increase taxes on the middle class. It only proves Romney “can’t accomplish all his stated objectives,” according to the Tax Policy Center’s director, Donald Marron.
I pick out this element of Biden's speech because I explicitly remember Clinton walking his audience through the very problem in Romney's tax plan identified by the Tax Policy Center. Clinton took the time to spell out the various scenarios which might result from Romney's plan--and then he argued that each scenario was undesirable from the standpoint of the core values he associated with the Democrats. This took some time to do, and he risked some of his listeners getting lost in the more complex structure of the argument. Far quicker and easier to say "Romney believes it's OK to raise taxes on the middle classes by $2,000."

But, of course, taking the time and making the more complex argument is honest--and Clinton took that more complex argument to the same conclusion that Binen wanted to jump to with one sentence: Romney is prepared to benefit the richest Americans at the cost of those who are less well off.

I'm not saying that Bill Clinton is a paragon of honesty here ("I did not have sexual relations with that woman!"), or that Biden is an unusually dishonest politician. What I'm saying is that the attempt to simplify things, to put them into soundbites, to make the message punchy and "clear" so that the "main point" doesn't get lost amidst the complications--this effort has costs. The chief cost is that you have to say something that is false. The reason why Clinton's speech was so clean isn't because Clinton is habitually honest in a way that other politicans are not. The reason is that Clinton is habitually resistant to talking down to his audiences. Instead, he tries (and succeeds, more often than not) to find a way to express the issues accessibly.

In my work--teaching--what Biden did in the example above could be described using the term "pedagogical license." The idea here is this. The full details of the theory are too complex for most of your students to follow and digest, at least in the time you have, whereas a simplified version is going to be inacurrate but more accessible. And so you offer the version that is incorrect, because the incorrect version will be grasped and lead the students to believe something in the vicinity of the truth. If you explained the true theory, you worry that the students would just be lost.

Now sometimes teachers have to do this--but when good teachers do it, they preface what they are offering with a disclaimer, something like the following: "Here's a way to think of it that's not quite correct, but which is helpful in getting the gist of the theory. Once you understand the basic idea, we can work on refining your understanding so that it's more accurate."

Usually I try to avoid pedagogical lincense in lecture. I offer as accurate an account as I can, and I try to make it as accessible as I can using examples, putting things in more than one way, etc. Sometimes a student will then say, "So what you're saying is blah"--and "blah" happens to be an oversimplified version that gets the gist of the theory but isn't really accurate. At that point I'll say that this is helpful in getting us in the ballpark, but the theory is a bit more complicated. Then I try to explain why.

Sometimes, however, I know from experience that given the student level and the time allowed, what I need to do is start with the more accessible but inaccurate explanation, offer due warnings about inaccuracy, and then work on refining the understanding as time allows.

But imagine a politician who prefaces his remarks with, "What I'm about to say about my political opponent isn't exactly correct, but I think it is in the ballpark of the truth. And the real truth has, I think, the same implications for what we should think of his policies. But the real truth is too hard for me to explain to you, so I won't try."  

Such a politician wouldn't get very far. So, instead, they just offer the incorrect statement as if it were the correct one.  

I'm not saying that all or most inaccuracies in political speech-making are like this. There are plenty of bald-faced lies, attempts to mislead and misdirect. But there are also attempts to lead people in what the politician sincerely believes is the right direction by doing something analogous to pedagogical license--but without offering the qualifying preface that a good teacher would offer.

But the cost is not just dishonesty in the particular case. The cost is a culture that becomes more tolerant of dishonesty. If the inaccuracy in one case is okay because the inaccurate view is in the ballpark of the harder-to-grasp correct view and has the same political implications, then what about an inaccurate view that isn't nearly as close to the true position but which the politician thinks has the same political implications? Where do you draw the line between the political analogue of pedagogical license and deliberate deception for political gain? If it's okay to say something that isn't quite factual because it will give voters the right impression, is it okay to say something that is strictly factual but aims to leave voters with the wrong impression?  

What I think Bill Clinton's example shows is that if you present the material in the right way, you don't need to dumb it down. If you are sufficiently dynamic and engaging, your audience will give you the time to explain things carefully and precisely.  

And whatever else one might say about Clinton, on this matter I think more politicians should strive to emulate him. Underestimating one's audience isn't good for those audiences, and it isn't good for a culture of truth.

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