Speech Loss

My previous post lamented the 2020 presidential debate format. I’ve been gratified in getting positive feedback from both sides of the aisle on this one.

A friend pointed out that the audience for clips and memes pulled from the debates is much larger than the audience for long-form podcasts. This triggered further reflection on how the points I was trying to make could be easily misunderstood.

The first thing to clarify is the irreversible loss that occurs when we compress speech or otherwise downgrade the nuance and quality of source material.

You can always make clips from longer content, but the reverse doesn’t happen. You can’t retroactively extend a discussion consisting of 2-minute insubstantial soundbites into a longer, more meaningful form.

Therefore, I see strict benefit from an information theoretic perspective to induce meaningful conversation as source material. (It’s a fine tradeoff for me if calmer conversation is less conducive to memeable moments.)

The second thing to clarify is that it’s not my intention to force my preference for long-form discussion upon anyone. An unlimited all-day conversational event isn’t necessarily the objectively best format; it’s just an interesting concept to think about.

To paraphrase Picasso, “I cannot say ‘this is good art’ or ‘this is bad art’. I can only say ‘this art pleases me’ or ‘this art doesn’t please me’.” It’s futile to attempt a normative definition of what the mainstream should be, from the top down. That’s up to everyone else.

The third thing to highlight is how prominent the presidential debates are. This specific event series commands a significant portion of national attention and dialogue leading up to the election. Over 50 million TV viewers tune in. It’s certainly the longest chunk of time I have spent focused on election-related matters, a completely engrossing multiple hours.

Because of the prominence of the debates, it’s in the public interest to make the format maximally useful. For example, the Wall Street Journal suggests the following:

We favor doing away with moderators and having microphones that give each candidate, say, two minutes to speak at a time. The candidates can use their time as they see fit before the microphone goes dead when the time runs out. The questions would come from the candidates and their campaigns, not some outside party who may have her own agenda. Surely the candidates know the best questions to put to their rivals.

Sounds like some good common sense. I wonder if this has any historical precedent? Oh, right, the original Lincoln-Douglas debates might be worth looking at (thanks Drew for educating me).

To sum up, I’m all about the long tail and want everybody to consume content that’s best for them. It would be great if lots of dialogue occurred in many formats. I love the Vice President’s fly as much as the next person. But I’m also highly conscious of the importance of what’s presented to the public, and how it’s presented.

There’s been growing concern over the past few years that free speech is under attack. I’m much more worried that thoughtful speech faces enough resistance to proliferation that it doesn’t even occur in the first place anymore.


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