Saturday, March 17, 2018

Good speaking is not good writing

There's an article by Nathan Robinson that's been going around recently titled "Jordan Peterson: The Intellectual We Deserve". After pages of apparently reasonable criticisms of his subject, the author delivers what he seems to think is his coup de grâce:
Even now, however, I am being too generous to Jordan Peterson’s intellect. I have been presenting him at his most comprehensible and polished. I have not been giving you the full experience of actually listening to him talk. Sitting through a Jordan Peterson lecture is very different to watching a rapid-fire television interview. Below, please find a fully-transcribed portion of 17 minutes of Peterson’s speech.[...] (NOTE: UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES ATTEMPT TO READ THE ENTIRETY OF THE FOLLOWING PASSAGE. READ AS MUCH AS YOU CAN BEFORE YOU BEGIN TO FEEL WEARY, THEN SCROLL QUICKLY TO THE END.)
Just to stack the scales a bit further, the transcription features no paragraphing. Nevertheless, I did read it - much quicker than watching some random video for 17 minutes! -and, rather anticlimactically, found a perfectly coherent and reasonably entertaining (if very likely unfair) parenting anecdote, obviously intended to illustrate the importance of setting boundaries. I rubbed my eyes and thought "How is it that an intelligent, well-educated native speaker of English can apparently not only see this transcript as an incoherent mess but also assume all his readers will? Am I crazy, or is he?"

The answer is simple: good speaking is not the same thing as good writing. Take a great talk, one that keeps a non-academic audience riveted, and transcribe it verbatim; it will almost always look rambling and repetitive on the page, unless you're already accustomed to reading such transcripts (part of the job for a descriptive linguist, but a rare experience for most people). That's simply the nature of the medium, and adequately explains the expected audience reaction. Maybe it even explains the author's reaction, if the only context he ever encounters long talks in is academia.

One of the author's main points - a valid one, I think - is that academics need to communicate better with the public for everyone's sake:

[...] he is popular partly because academia and the left have failed spectacularly at helping make the world intelligible to ordinary people, and giving them a clear and compelling political vision.
If so, the first step is to learn appropriate discourse strategies. You don't talk to confused young people on YouTube as if you were addressing a learned seminar, much less writing a article. Nathan Robinson surely realises this himself - but, by going for cheap laughs at the expense of a perfectly ordinary example of spoken language, he's not only weakening his main point but encouraging the very blindness to orality that makes it difficult for many academics to communicate with the public. Academics can surely do better - let a thousand learned YouTube channels bloom! - but not without (re)learning how to talk to the people they want to talk to.


David Marjanović said...

Oh, that's the lobster guy. *biologist eye(stalk) roll*

I have no training as a descriptive linguist, read the whole thing, and was surprised it was already over. :-) It is a bit hard to read, with lots of roadbumps where I have to pause and parse again, because it's a bad transcript! Look at it – there's not a single dash in the whole thing! I'd have sprinkled a load of commas over it, too. In spoken language, most of the guides to parsing are in the intonation, so the intonation has to be transcribed in some way if a verbatim transcript (complete with false starts and all) is supposed to be understandable.

Abraham said...

Lameen, I just wanted to express my hearty admiration for your work. I’m no linguist, but I am taking an MSA course and I ran across your excellent post and comments on the size of the Arabic vocabulary from 2013. Impressed, I looked through a few other articles and enjoyed them just as thoroughly. I only wish every academic could write as succinctly and simply as you do. Keep up the good work. With any luck, you’ll be part of the movement which challenges Peterson and others for reach in the non-academic world.

Abe Collier

PS I share your dislike for Taleb. Good to hear that I’m not the only one who finds him insufferable.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

David: Yes, it is a bad transcript - he was definitely trying to stack the scales there...

Abraham: Thank you!