September 11, 2019

Jack Moline

When Did Simplistic Words Replace Simple, Eloquent Ones?

There are
times when the simplest words are the most eloquent.

an idea, a concept or a feeling in uncomplicated language allows something
profound to rise above the craft of constructing a meaningful phrase.

I had the
experience of contrasting two parallel phrases when I saw the stage adaptation
of “To Kill a Mockingbird” written by Aaron Sorkin.

At one
point, Scout, the young daughter, is being lectured by her father, Atticus, about
the mentality of a mob.

He spends
a number of sentences on the process of mostly reasonable folks joining a mob
and then concludes with, “A mob is a place where people take a break from their

I was impressed
with this Sorkin-esque discourse, but I could not capture enough of it to jot
it down in the dark theater. I found the short version online.

just before launching into this description, Atticus rebuffs Scout’s
expectations of others with the pithy, “A person is smart; people are dumb.”
Those seven words capture everything about crowd-sourcing anger.

By the
way, intentionally or not, Sorkin lifted that line from “Men in Black,” a decidedly
lower-brow production. Tommy Lee Jones says it to Will Smith. Look it up.

It is harder
to write short, but it is infinitely more satisfying (certainly for the
listener!). I learned early in my career as a rabbi not to use up too many
words in a sermon. The fewer I used for one talk, the more I had left for the

words deployed in short declarative sentences do not necessarily put a
speaker’s erudition on display, but they hone a message to its essence.

Moses sees his dear sister, Miriam, afflicted with debilitating disease (a
punishment for sinning against him), he proclaims the prayer, “O God, please
heal her!” (Numbers 12:13).

words contain everything you need to know about the relationship between
brother and sister and the character of the speaker.

is not a guarantee of clarity, however.

We have
spent a lot of time over these past two-plus years reacting to simple words
inexpertly jumbled.

Used in
place of profundity – or when profundity escapes the speaker – simple words can
also reveal a simple mind.

decline of meaningful public expression is a loss I have felt increasingly,
mostly after I hear someone capable of speaking well.

It is
true that a smooth-talking person can distract from the implications of his or
her message, but the contrast between fashioning an inspiring thought and blurting
out hackneyed adjectives like “great” or “unfair” is striking.

It was
apparent when I heard a candidate for public office recently who referred to
“fecklessness” as characterizing a policy. My first thought was that his
monosyllabic opponent likely thought the word meant going without sex.

My second
thought was how refreshing it was to hear the kind of expression that William
Safire used to champion.

I think
the more urgent the thought, the more admirable the brevity. The plaintive plea
for Miriam’s healing required no elaboration. The instruction offered by
Atticus (or by “K”) was about respecting the person, suspecting the crowd.

But when
nuance is essential, maybe it is not such a good idea to offer simple (read:
simplistic) estimations of complicated notions. 

shouldn’t forget that, in contrast to this powerful and brief prayer, is the
Book of Deuteronomy, almost entirely Moses’ monologue that goes on for most of
34 chapters containing 959 verses. I dare you to sum it up with more conciseness
or power than these five words.