7 Reasons Why Brevity Fails Us
In praise of longer posts.
Posted Jul 01, 2020
When people began using Twitter, expressing oneself in 140 characters became a challenge, and then a virtue. When Twitter expanded to 280 characters in 2017, some people stood firm with 140, for a while. Now 280 is the new art form. I’ve championed six-word memoirs, so I know the value of brevity and of thinking in terms of distillation.
Slogans have power, and they are necessary for organizations to promote a point of view and move public opinion. But with high levels of national polarization and greater use of labels and slogans than ever before, it is time to rethink brevity in our own personal lives. For all its benefits, Twitter encourages speech designed for provocation and insult, instead of meaningful discourse.
I’m not advocating for wordiness or bloviating. I am simply proposing more complexity in our discourse and more representation of the middles between two extremes. A long and thoughtful post on Facebook can provide a motivating description of one's lived experience, whereas excess brevity may only stifle understanding and communication.
Seven Problems of Brevity
1. Brief expressions leave too much room for extrapolation and misinterpretation.
“Make America Great Again” directly implies that America was great, it isn’t now, and it should return to its former greatness. Those interpretations are clear. But after that, the questions begin.
When exactly was America great, why was it great at that time, and what happened to remove this greatness? The first answers then lead to the time when the person originating this slogan came of age (the late 1950’s) and the conditions in America back then. It's true that many people were gaining economic prosperity, but it's also true that many African Americans were suffering from poll taxes, Jim Crow laws, underfunded and segregated schools, and redlining. And most of the country was exposed to the unfettered proliferation of carcinogens and little regulation of industrial toxins released into our air and waterways. As a slogan, it has been politically effective; as an expression of history and ideology, it is simplistic and fraught.
The slogan “Defund the Police” has the advantage of forcefulness but the disadvantage of being unclear. The assigned meanings range from literally not funding police departments to the broader definition of planfully taking money out of the police budget and distributing it to other parts of local government, such as social services, education, and housing – and creating new offices to manage activities that don’t require intensive police training, such as handing out parking tickets.
Obviously, all this cannot be included in a slogan, but some elaboration would express more clearly the idea of redefining and demilitarizing the police.
2. Slogans and labels do not convey gradations of a particular quality.
Successful slogans and labels function as constants that persistently characterize their subject. Being privileged, for example, suggests an all-or-none category. But many people enjoy privileges to some extent and in some areas more than others. Moreover, labeling a person as privileged or not privileged is a binary process, even though the questioning of binary assumptions is central to an awareness of our own privileges and the lack of privileges for others.
3. Slogans and labels direct memory retrieval to call up the most extreme examples. Hearing the word “thugs” to describe a group of people retrieves images of specific incidents at the far end of the spectrum of brutality – the most unambiguous examples of bullying and destructiveness. The label does not encourage or even allow examples in the middle.
4. Slogans and labels lead to premature certainty – before we’ve thought through the meaning of a concept or the complexity of a group of people. Brief expressions inhibit learning. Once we repeatedly apply an expression to a complex position, we are less inclined to continue our inquiry into that position. The once meaningful phrase “cancel culture” is now used to defend the publishing of any hurtful falsehoods, shutting down thoughtful critique and turning off distinctions and analysis.
5. Slogans and labels divide people. Slogans function as crypto-ideologies, encapsulating an organization’s complex goals while motivating its members. They originate in ideology and distill the ideological complexities into blunt calls for action. However, the personal costs of this distillation need further consideration. Their divisive brevity can produce murderous motivations, as evidenced in Pittsburgh and El Paso.
6. Slogans and labels push people to the ends of continuums, when they are probably closer to the middle. By definition, most of us are in the center of any distribution, but brief expressions force us to the far ends. We see daily evidence of how slogans and labels reinforce separation and polarization.
7. Slogans and labels block our ability to analyze. “Black Lives Matter” led to “All Lives Matter.” The first slogan focuses on the historic and ongoing injustices inflicted specifically on African Americans. The second expresses a diffuse statement about concern for everyone. But the second slogan blocks further analysis of its own meaning.
Analogies may help reopen analysis. Back in 2017, for example, charities collected donations for displaced people in Houston after Hurricane Harvey swept through eastern Texas. The specifics were clear – and refusing to give money to Houston because “all cities matter” would have seemed ungenerous and strange.
It’s true that people cannot chant whole paragraphs during a political rally and that slogans are necessary for rhythmic expression and ideological bonding, but carrying a slogan into our particular, complicated lives obscures meaningful complexities.
The author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said, “Words name things and then replace them.” Before we select words for personal or political labels, we should pause and carefully consider these words. We should be especially thoughtful when these words represent complex and dynamic processes. In fact, Psychology can be our guide. Perhaps we should carefully consider personal and political labels, just as well-trained clinicians consider their diagnostic labels.