Tim Minchin and the Power of Language
Tim Minchin is an irreverent, smart, and mercilessly funny comedian and musician. He has been recently awarded with an Honorary Degree from the University of Western Australia. During the ceremony he gave an occasional address, as he calls it, sharing nine of his poignant life lessons.
This guy is one of my heroes.
Here is my favorite quote from the speech:
Most of society’s arguments are kept alive by a failure to acknowledge nuance. We tend to generate false dichotomies, then try to argue one point using two entirely different sets of assumptions, like two tennis players trying to win a match by hitting beautifully executed shots from either end of separate tennis courts.
Now, that’s an elegant piece of writing; or rather, a sequence of words, carefully selected for their ability to shape a clear thought inside the mind of the reader. Where is this vivid mental picture coming from? I can think of five components: the choice of words, the order in which they are arranged, the connections that they form with their neighbors, the ideas that these word connections elicit, and the order in which they appear.
The right word at the right time
Compare Tim’s version
Most of society’s arguments are kept alive by a failure to acknowledge nuance.
with this one
The majority of arguments that take place in society happen because people don’t bother with the details.
Why is Tim’s version more elegant? I think it has to do with the mental pictures that our brain associates with each word. “Keeping something alive” offers more powerful imagery than “taking place”. Think about it. You can imagine administering CPR to someone, or trying to rekindle a burned out fire, but does “take place” or “happen” conjure anything? Not in my brain.
“Not bothering with something” is less dramatic than “a failure to acknowledge something”.
And then, there’s “nuance”. I love that kind of words; rarely used but flawlessly fitting specific situations. “Nuance” describes a subtle shade of meaning; “details” as well, but it also has many other connotations that make it seem less focused: a detail can be an individual part of something, a particular of a story, a minor item, a thorough treatment.
From abstract to visual
We tend to generate false dichotomies, then try to argue one point using two entirely different sets of assumptions, …
We are reading the sentence and we reach “generate false dichotomies”. Then, our working memory plants a flag—ok, that’s one concept. Later, we get to “argue… using two entirely different sets of assumptions"—ok, another concept. Now we can look back to see the connection between "dichotomy” and “arguing” (a dichotomy is a division into two parts, we separate our assumptions into two camps and use them to argue the same point). The two ideas are connected, but the connection remains abstract until a metaphor comes along to accrue it into a shining visual:
… like two tennis players trying to win a match by hitting beautifully executed shots from either end of separate tennis courts.
That is the power of language.
A few subtleties hold the visual together. Consider this more off-target version:
… like tennis players hitting beautiful shots from their own court.
We could infer that there are “two” tennis players, that each is “trying to win a match”, that they are “executing” shots, that each is located at the “end” of a tennis court, and that the courts are “separated”, but noticing those things out requires too much mental work, and if they are not pointed out the visual crumbles.
This type of sentence dissection is not just being punctilious, it helps explain why some squiggles on the page manage to cajole our brain into comprehension better than other squiggles. And that’s what we’re after, right? Comprehension.