So…you think you can read?

I recently had the opportunity to help someone filling in an application. I’m going to name him Tom. The specific scenario is not relevant to this little story and I certainly would never intentionally embarrass someone by publicly naming them and declaring them to be illiterate.

The reason that I started helping Tom was because I recognized that he was having difficulty answering some of the questions on the form. Being the sensitive person that I am, I asked ‘are you able to read English?’ I didn’t mean to insult him, and in fact in this same environment I’ve had many people ask me for help and tell me straight out that they couldn’t read English. In some cases, it was because English was not their native language, and in many other cases it was because they never learned to read. I am very comfortable with a person admitting that they can’t read and asking for help. What concerned me in this circumstance was that Tom was insulted by my question because he felt that he could read English.

The most basic definition of illiterate is “unable to read or write”. Well, Tom could read English…at about a 3rd grade reading level. Is that literate? At that skill level most people can read most one-syllable words and for longer words are able to phonetically sound them out and decipher the meaning. On this particular form there happened to be many larger words and Tom was sounding them out aloud. And getting a lot of them wrong!

For example, if the correct word was ‘process’ he might interpret it as ‘positive’. If the word was ‘medicinal’ he might come up with ‘medical’. Close yes, but close enough to understand the real meaning of the sentence? No! It was not! And as I stood there watching him struggle and trying to sound out the words, I really sympathized with him and offered assistance because he was answering incorrectly. And the reason was because as he misunderstood the actual word, he then interpreted the context of the question incorrectly and gave an incorrect answer. Answering this form incorrectly was definitely going to have a negative impact on the outcome for Tom.

When I asked him if he would like some assistance with it, he became indignant and angry with me and refused my help. He proceeded to answer incorrectly and I watched helplessly as he burned this opportunity by submitting incorrect information on the form.

It reminds me of trying to read Shakespeare. I decided one time to become more cultured by enjoying the complete works of Shakespeare. I read a few plays and really thought I understood. Then a while later I re-read one of the plays but this time with footnotes and I discovered that while we will find many words in Shakespeare that are still in use today…the meaning was completely different in the Bard’s time. It turns out I didn’t understand at all! I didn’t get a lot of the humor. I missed a lot of the sex. Darn!

Well…here’s my point. Currently there are around 250 million people able to vote for President. The voter turnout is usually just over half of the eligible voters, so about 140 million people elect the president. Think about your state, or county, or city or town. How many people are voting for your elected representatives. On what are they basing their decision?

Do they only listen and not read? That means they have to make a decision based on someone’s verbal interpretation of the facts, which are almost always represented in a very one-sided way. This person voted for this bill. Why? What else was in the bill? Why did they vote that way? What is their real voting record and how will they vote on the bill that you really care about?

If they are reading, then they are not only dependent on the perspective of the writing, they may be misinterpreting the facts because of a basic misunderstanding of the words themselves, or the context in which they are used.

This leads me to believe that it is increasingly important to have discussions and debates. Unfortunately, the ability to have a reasonable discussion is quickly going away. Civil discourse is replaced by heated arguments. Compromise based on mutual interests is replaced by one-sided positional stances. Talking politics over a glass of wine is replaced by polite, trivial, and meaningless dialog because nobody wants to offend anyone.

We need to learn to disagree without being disagreeable. And we need to continue to learn. Sometimes, a 140 character sentence just isn’t enough…especially if a word is mispelled.