I occasionally will watch televised presidential debates. I must admit, they're quite entertaining. I always wonder though, as I'm watching these great dramas unfold, whether I'm actually learning anything other than how well one candidate can use words and their personal charm to manipulate our impressions and make their opponent look just a little less competent.
Politics is probably a prime example of a profession that requires the ability to move words around without really saying much, but I don't think that this is limited to the political domain. Of course, politicians are often trying to balance their need to be liked with their desire to improve society (and to be elected for another term), so perhaps it's hard to blame them for being restricted in their speech.
Thomas Sowell, in his book Intellectuals And Society, introduces the idea of an intellectual verbal virtuoso as someone whose work begins and ends entirely in the realm of ideas. In other words, as long as the words sound good it doesn't really matter if they have any bearing in reality. Oftentimes what matters is that the ideas are "interesting, original, persuasive, elegant, or ingenious."
In contrast to this, Einstein's theory of relativity wasn't accepted because it was interesting, original, persuasive, elegant, or ingenious. In fact Einstein stressed that his theory should not be accepted until it was verified empirically. His theory was confirmed only when scientists from around the world were able to empirically test that light behaved as his theory said it would by observing an eclipse of the sun.
Of course, the concept of a verbal virtuoso isn't limited to the realm of intellectuals. I think each of us encounter verbal virtuosos in our everyday lives. Perhaps you have a relative that regales you with story after story and in the moment you are mesmerized. Only after they are done talking and you've lost a chunk of your life do you realize that you have no idea what to take away from the conversation. I know that I've sat at many dinner tables observing someone move words around and wondering why I have to sit there listening to them talk about close to nothing.
Or maybe you've encountered a verbal virtuoso who "transforms an opposing argument, rather than answering it with either logic or evidence," as Sowell notes. In other words, instead of giving you a straight counterargument based on logic or evidence, they reframe your argument to their advantage and thus are able to evade the issue by moving your original words around and perhaps even sprinkle in some new ones of their own.
I don't know about you, but I've never been great at speaking off the cuff. I've learned to give talks but this always takes much preparation and hard work. I've also met a lot of people who aren't always so great at manipulating words, but are really good at manipulating numbers and symbols. This makes me wonder, in contrast to the verbal virtuosos, what about the non-verbal virtuosos of the world? Do they ever get a word in?
David Lohman wrote a paper titled "Spatially gifted, Verbally Inconvenienced." For anyone who hasn't been very verbally fluent in their lifetimes but good with spatial tasks I encourage you to read it. Just because you're not a great talker doesn't mean you're not a great thinker. Like the motto of the smartphone company HTC, perhaps you're quietly brilliant.
The verbally gifted give us the clever phrases we hear on the radio, in print, and on the television. Keep in mind that not all of the verbally gifted are verbal virtuosos, and that many verbal virtuosos are not gifted. In contrast, the spatially and non-verbally gifted give us the very ingenious yet practical devices that allow these words to reach us. For example, the device you're reading this article from, right now.
I find that more than just a little ironic.
© 2012 by Jonathan Wai