Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 April 2014

Are we so dumbed down that we miss the obvious?

Sign of the times: Fifty Shades of Grey passes for a great read as opposed to the wonderful writing of Helen Waddell
Sign of the times: Fifty Shades of Grey passes for a great read as opposed to the wonderful writing of Helen Waddell

I'd say we were dumbing down, if the phrase itself didn't seem so dumb. But there's no doubt that we are. Study after study shows that modern society is getting ever more stupid with each passing year.

The comfortable assumption that we are always on an upward evolutionary trajectory is both arrogant and wrong. In fact, at this rate, soon we'll be able to do little more than grunt and point.

In the latest instance, a research team from universities in Sweden, Holland and Ireland found "a pronounced decline in IQ since the Victorian era, three times bigger than previous theoretical estimates would have us believe."

Yes, those repressed prudes – notoriously obsessed with keeping table legs covered up in case they gave men sexy thoughts about finely-turned ankles – were actually substantially smarter than the free-wheeling techno-nerds of today. The scientists compared reaction times – regarded as a key indicator of general intelligence, productivity and creativity – from the late-19th century to the present and discovered that our brains are definitely slowing down. The Victorians were positively whizzy: the average man in 1889 had a reaction time of 183 milliseconds, while the present-day Mr Dopey can only manage a sluggish 253 milliseconds.

I'm not surprised. We don't need studies and statistics to tell us this stuff, the evidence is staring us in the face every day.

Last year, I made a radio programme about the Belfast writer and poet Helen Waddell, who became one of the biggest literary stars of the 1920s and 1930s.

Her historical novel, Peter Abelard, was a runaway success, praised by everyone from Queen Mary to factory workers and prisoners. It was the must-read novel of 1933, reprinted an incredible nine times in the first year of its publication.

But Waddell's breakthrough novel would never, ever make the bestseller lists today. Why? Because the writing, while beautiful and resonant, is simply far too challenging. Reading it takes a certain effort of concentration, not to mention a passing knowledge of medieval theology. With Fifty Shades of Grey, today's popular publishing miracle, all you need is some basic literacy and a sick, prurient interest in getting lashed with a whip for pleasure.

In culture, in politics, in everyday life, superficial froth and twaddle regularly triumphs over substantial, thought-through ideas. Attention spans attenuated by the 140 character demands of Twitter, we often behave more like bored toddlers than sentient adults, expecting to be continually indulged and entertained.

Radio and television programmes urge listeners to text in their thoughts, however stupid or vacuous, which are dutifully read out on air. It's all done in the name of democracy and openness and anti-elitism, but to my mind it's more often about flattering people and pretending to care about what they think.

What's worse, we are awash in corporate lingo and PR-speak: glib, glossy soundbites that go down like Maltesers, but which, on closer examination, prove to be equally full of bubbles of sweetened air. Policy hatchet-jobs are hidden (poorly) behind winsome titles.

The drastic BBC cuts initiative, in which hundreds of people have lost their jobs, goes by the jaunty sobriquet of Delivering Quality First. And Transforming Your Care is the cosy-sounding name for the review proposing the closure of 50% of care homes in Northern Ireland. Nice.

Or take the much-hyped new good relations initiative, Together, Building a United Community, which Peter Robinson proudly announced as the "rebranded" version of the terminally stalled Cohesion, Sharing and Integration strategy.

High on aspiration, with much talk of united communities, free from prejudice, hate and intolerance, but short on detailed plans for actual delivery, it reeks of PR (a fragrance, I imagine, not unlike those cheap car air-fresheners you buy at the garage: chemical and vaguely sickening).

There are loads of emollient and worthy-sounding words flying about, intended to take the bad look off the fact that they haven't a baldy clue how to sort this place out, given that the whole dysfunctional edifice is predicated on maintaining, not ending, division.

As ever, the truth leaks out slowly and shiftily, emerging in sentences like this one, introducing the new strategy: "Whilst recognising there are no easy answers, we are committed to attempting to find long-term and sustainable solutions that are in the best interests of the community we serve."

All they're offering, with this mealy-mouthed jargon, is that they'll give it a go. Nothing more.

Do they think we're too thick to notice?

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