In Defence of Mumbling
I did not see the programme but I didn’t really need to.
I had already picked up from twitter that many felt there was an issue with mumbling in a BBC adaptation of Daphne Du Maurer’s novel Jamaica Inn. Such was the mumbling that it appears the dialogue was hard to understand. There seems to be some suggestion that technical issues with sound quality rather than a cast of mumblers is the cause.
To be clear, unless the programme is meant to be mumbled, and I sense the balance is that it is not, then it should be audible.
However the discussion seems to have set off a hitherto mostly silent army of mumbling-phobics who think it is always bad. It isn’t.
Those that know me will know that I am veteran mumbler. Why is this? Largely because in private [not in public roles] I am quite a shy person and you mostly wont hear me bellowing out my thoughts, [although bellow I can if required]. Mostly I speak quietly and sometimes that is inaudible.
Of course I do sometimes actually do this deliberately, in meetings for example.
I once heard the late, and not great, Gerry Healy speaking in public. His voice would drop to a nearly inaudible whisper and then, in the very next utterance, rise to a huge volume. The impact was startling. A good deal more so than the politics.
The social theorist James C Scott has written in Weapons of the Weak that mumbling can be act of resistance.
He has studied peasant societies where ordinary people have little collective power on most occasions and expressing open dissent can be dangerous.
It is here that the mutter really comes in to its own. An oath or semi-audible word can give the appearance of dissent but since it has not been clearly heard it is very difficult for authority to pursue it.
The mutter provides a sense of dissent without a specific form.
It can work well in meetings- though pick your meeting with care. A remark, let’s say a mild piss-take of someone who is talking, which is only half heard can be off-putting and more effective than a heckle. Of course such interventions are not always designed to take the rise out of authority. They can be used in a reactionary way- the muttered sexist or homophobic remark for example.
But with that caution up front, the mutter and muttering should not be simply dismissed. To use Charles Tilly’s framework it is one of a range of tools that can be used to show dissent.
In the words of the song, ‘there’s something happening here, what it is, ain’t exactly clear