Words Fail Me

A stutterer's soliloquy

On Oscar's Day, a Duality of Communication

Oscar front-runners celebrate human connection while crafting new stereotypes

The consensus for the annual Academy Awards front-runner this evening is of course divided between The King's Speech and The Social Network. As a recent computer science graduate who also happens to stutter, I find myself torn. Two different groups of people can lay claim to “their” movie. For which group should I be cheering — my dozens of friends currently working at Facebook, or the dozens of people I know who stutter?

Scene from The Social Network
Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) overcomes stigma to unite through technology
Credit: San Francisco Sentinel

That the two should be running so closely together should not come as a surprise. Innumerable comparisons have been made between the films: period drama versus contemporary, British versus American, ennobled royalty versus college upstarts, tradition versus technology. Each film elucidates its own side so well that to claim supremacy is meaningless. One could no more assert the superiority of technology over tradition than the tastiness of apples over bananas.

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Yet the many reviews, Oscar predictions and news broadcasts have failed to grasp this vital point: both movies are about communication. Whether a king connecting with his subjects or us commoners mapping our social graph on the web, both movies break down barriers — of association, interaction, and relationship — to foster deep human connection. After all, the ability of King George VI to unify his subjects against Nazi rule is not so different to the unifying power of social media as proxy for international diplomacy.

King George VI and his wife
King George VI (Colin Firth) overcomes stigma to unite through tradition
Credit: Indiewire

If there is a nod for The King's Speech, it will be because the movie so beautifully introduces the public to the estimated sixty-eight million people worldwide who stutter. To the extent that a portion of those people have felt disenfranchised, this film brings a voice to the voiceless. The fact that a former monarch of over a third of the world's population also stutterered will no longer be a dinner table curiosity, but a point of pride. Any stutterer can square up to those who tease or diminish them and say, “Just watch The King's Speech. You'll understand.”

As a stutterer I empathize with this view, and regard it at as cinema's ultimate noble expression and raison d'être. In my heart of hearts I want it to win. And yet The Social Network also played a similar introduction to its constituents, the tipping point at which being a geek truly became cool. Computer scientists are today the arbiters of popularity and the exalted creators of must-have inventions from iPads to Twitter accounts. Relationships, not data, drive this dynamic segment of consumer Internet. Every twenty-something in this field derives the same sense of ownership of The Social Network — for this is their introduction, too, to the mainstream — as do people who stutter with The King's Speech.

This evening both movies will win a certain number of Academy Awards. Each camp will be cheering for its own, though they are really two halves of the same coin. Taken together, it feels as though the world has been introduced to two different ideals, formerly oxymoronic: the noble stutterer and the popular geek. Both groups have done their part to break down barriers of identity and communication. Both have — at long last! — found their place in the mainstream: the dignity of the stutterer and the sociability of the nerd are today considered axiomatic. And that is cause for celebration enough.

© 2011 Aman Kumar. All rights reserved.

Aman Kumar has researched computational linguistics and human-computer interaction, worked briefly on Wall Street and helped define software for the iPhone at Apple. more...

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