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OFF CENTRE: Even a little with ‘content’ . . .


Sherwyn Walters

OFF CENTRE: Even a little with ‘content’ . . .

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Not me. I would not be caught dead dismissing the cricket observations of C.L.R. James or James Frith or Tony Cozier just because they had no known significant cricket-playing involvement.
Similarly, though I may have concerns about whether their on-mike talk is always a fit with their roles, I have never been one to join those who say that Admiral Nelson or Dennis Johnson or Carol Roberts don’t have the “credentials” to speak insightfully about calypso art/craft.
To say that seems to me to feed off of the prevalent tendencies towards intellectual laziness or arrogance or denigration of others (so-called, not by me, “hating”). Not to mention that it is an ill-advised blurring of the lines between doing and critiquing, which experts separate into – and vouch for the distinct validity of – the procedural, on the one hand, and the declarative or conceptual, on the other. In some other places they understand and embrace it. Here, not so much.
While background and hands-on involvement have their value (like showing that a person has requisite familiarity with the thing under consideration), they have no natural correlation with good analysis or articulate speech/writing or teaching quality in output or incisive thinking, all of which must be marks of effective criticism (by which I don’t narrowly mean fault-finding).
Hear Aaron Copland (outstanding composer, conductor, critic, teacher): “[There are] many pianists who spend their lives playing great works, yet whose understanding of music is, on the whole, rather weak.”
It is not about “credentials” or “involvement”.
And there are, most certainly, other ways to come to the required level of “knowing” in a particular field – ask Glen Mills, coach of Usain Bolt and several outstanding others, who out of disappointment with his performances quit track when he was about 14.
A listener’s or reader’s focus on “credentials” can also cause them to fall into the trap of ad hominen (focus on the person) thinking in one of these two ways: giving someone uncritical acceptance simply on the basis of paper, profile, past or present “related” activity; or summarily dismissing another’s contribution because of lack of such – both of which represent a failure to knowledgeably and with penetrating thinking attend to the task of exploring what the writer or speaker actually said or wrote. 
Get ticked off
We would be more honourably employed dealing with the content (not them) – the accuracy and applicability of their claims, the cogency of their elaboration, their value-added.
To put it differently, what we should require of those who dare to take on the role of critic/analyst is evidence of significant elaboration that is securely tied to the elements of the field (which in the case of calypso is mostly songwriting). Once they show us that, even if we disagree, we should accept the legitimacy of their involvement. After all, even highly “pedigreed” academics in the same field disagree – frequently. It comes down, then, to the argumentation, the elaboration.
That is where, I guess, a lot of people get ticked off: the absence of informed and informing elaboration.
Case(s) in point: in this season of World Cup football, viewers, even if they are too quickly dismissive of CBC-TV8’s analysts, clearly have a craving for this “informed and informing elaboration”. And they think that some of the studio “talent” (the invited expert(s) whose duty it is to do the analysis and give the ins and outs of the events and performances) are not delivering it.
From the comments I hear, quite a few viewers think that what is passing for analysis is sometimes nothing more than what a man off the street would provide.
That, too, is what often makes us cringe when we hear our present West Indian cricketers talk after a day’s play (well, that and troubling Standard English deficits) or some past ones who are working in radio and television commentary. (Again showing that there is no natural correlation between involvement and analysis.)
The traditional thinking is that we should help the fellows to upgrade their language skills.
Sense of audience
I say that is to start at the wrong place. But who can blame people for thinking like that when the school system itself, with its zealous focus on “grammar”, and not a tireless devotion to eliciting and nurturing truly engaging substance in speech and in writing, colludes in the production of the very ordinary, even if it is grammatically correct.
I firmly believe that if we cultivate in our speakers and writers a keen sense of audience and the corollary passion to produce content that their audience will prize, then that vital sense of audience will help them to also value how they articulate it.
That is where the problem is: weak claims and elaboration, engendered by virtual unconcern about the desperate need to give the audience great added value.
If you value your audience, you will know that you have to deliver insightful assertions, which you must then potently back up – remember: “He who asserts must prove” (a basic tenet of argument).
(Not by the way: many news outlets in the Caribbean have trained politicians to take their audiences for granted, giving sound-bite and print-quote space to the banal, the insipid, the shallow, the uninsightful. The media always, always want to put them centre stage – regardless.)
If we are going to do justice to our wonderful brains, we want “informed and informing elaboration” – from everybody, whether they be politicians or radio or television personalities. And it is not beyond them, provided they do the necessary to get up to speed.
Content is the thing. Knowledgeable and insightful content. We could gain a lot from even a little.
• Sherwyn Walters is a writer who became a teacher, a song analyst, a broadcaster and an editor. Email [email protected]

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