I have watched with dismay as more and more of our public discourse has been reduced to sound bites of 140 characters or less.
While our current president may be the most notable and egregious example of this trend, he cannot really bear all of the blame for the deterioration of our public conversations.
Other, more traditionally stately politicians have also turned to Twitter to communicate ideas that, if they are worth airing at all, deserve more than 140 characters. Hillary Clinton has done it. Barack Obama has done it. Jerry Brown has done it. And I’m really tired of politics via tweets. I’d like to hear a well-turned phrase and an elegant expression of ideas from my leaders every once in a while, especially in these times of political turmoil.
Here is the thing about communicating political rhetoric and policy via Twitter: No space for nuances of thought. Too few words. Eloquence punished. Must leave out parts of speech – articles – required for intelligent dialogue. Tragic & SAD.
I suppose this is what I object to most about our current president’s tweets. Sure, I sometimes cringe at the tone and the message itself, but I am more put off by the act of tweeting itself.
Though some might argue that what a leader does is far more important than what he says, I would counter that when a representative of a republic speaks, he is not just speaking to a nation – he is, oftentimes, speaking for a nation. Nations are complex, and a president should take into account at least some of the manifold considerations inherent in policymaking when communicating to his fellow citizens and to our friends, and enemies, abroad.
This is impossible to do on Twitter. Twitter is a good forum for high school kids who want to air their grievances about a strict curfew or onerous homework assignment, but it should not be a platform for political discussion.
It’s deeply troubling to me that our nation has evolved into a society that believes we can say all that needs to be said in 140 characters – including spaces between words, which literally communicate nothing at all.
I am old-fashioned, I know.
I still love to read the Victorians for the cadences of their intricately woven, gloriously long sentences. Our world is no longer tied to the Victorian sensibilities that prompted Anthony Trollope and William Thackeray to construct sentences that rambled on until, if you were reading them aloud, you’d have to stop and gasp for breath halfway through.
It is probably a good thing that we have, over the passage of time, opted for economy of language. And yet, the governing of a democracy depends to a large extent on dialogue that does not concern itself primarily with brevity. Some of our greatest moments as Americans have come in the form of speeches given by eloquent men and women. Sometimes, those leaders summed up our united purpose in the face of tragedy, and they did it with laudable concision. But they could never have done it in tweets, even in multiples of three.
Though Abe Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was more than 140 characters, it was nevertheless noticeably short by any orator’s standards. And yet, within a mere 266 words, Lincoln conveyed the heavy tragedy and overwhelming heroism of lives lost in a terrible war.
In one section of his speech, a few lines totaling 82 words – still far more than what might be packed into a Tweet – Lincoln told Americans that they had a solemn duty to honor their fallen: “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the Earth.”
It is a passage so beautiful it remains a standard in high school English textbooks across the country, and while it was achieved in remarkably few words, the enormity of the tragedy demanded more than 140 characters. I shudder to think what a Twitter-obsessed Lincoln might write about the battle at Gettysburg were it to occur today. Since I greatly admire Lincoln, I like to believe that he would still manage to be far more eloquent than his party’s latest rendition of a president, and yet I cannot imagine how he might manage this in 140 characters. He would probably be forced to write something like this: Huge battlefield. Dead bodies galore. Hope they didn’t die for nothing. Really SAD.
I wish our current leaders would look to speakers like Lincoln for inspiration. Political messages don’t have to be unduly wordy, but maybe we could at least aim for discourse that does not have as its sole requirement that it be so short it can be read in three seconds. When our leaders resort to Twitter to convey their opinions, they demean us all by turning what should be nuanced messages into disjointed phrases so simple they don’t even merit attention. I wish we would hold ourselves to higher standards.
Brigitte Bowers is a lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program at UC Merced.