Voices
Illustration by Krieg Barrie

From trivial to vulgar

Be careful what survey results you wish for

Issue: "2011 News of the Year," Dec. 31, 2011

What a difference 10 days make! If you read my lament in WORLD's last issue, you'll recall my frustration at the reluctance of a band of Walmart shoppers to participate in my simple sidewalk survey. My question to them, I thought, was fair: "Is there any particular message you'd like to send to the government in Washington?" But almost no one wanted to talk-and I devoted this space to my frustration ("Mr. Gallup would be sad," Dec. 17).

I couldn't let the matter rest. Back I went this past week to the same Walmart parking lot, determined to show myself a more winsome and a better interviewer. The rain had stopped, the holidays were closer, the Salvation Army bell ringer was there, and maybe, I thought, people would have cheered up a bit.

The results include good news and bad news.

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The good news is that the folks coming and going at Walmart's main door were indeed sweeter-spirited and more willing to stop for a brief chat than they had been 10 days earlier. Both times, I approached about 30 people over a two-hour period. I'd done this same thing a number of times before, and typically found I could get 20 decent conversations out of 30 approaches. What was so upsetting a couple of weeks back was that out of 30 approaches, only two or three people were willing to talk. This week, only one person out of 30 said no-and she apologized and explained she was late for another appointment.

The bad news, though, is that all these folks who were so ready to talk had so little to say.

"Hang Obama!" ranted Delmar Howard, one of my very first interviewees. "What?" I asked, taken back by his vicious candor. "Yah," he said, watching me take notes. "You asked what message I'd like to go to Washington. And I said to tell them to hang Obama. He's done more to destroy our government than any terrorist ever thought of doing. He should pay the ultimate price." And then: "You got that?"

"Pump a whole lot more money into Planned Parenthood," suggested Jayfish Thompson. "I hear they help keep poor families smaller, and that's one of the main things we need right now. We can't afford any more poor people." Was my wide-eyed wonderment showing as I scribbled in my reporter's pad?

"Cut the prices of food and gas," said Lisa Reed. I wanted to ask her if that was the federal government's task, in the first place, and if the feds had that ability even if it was their job. I was here, though, not to argue, but simply to report responses. Like shopper Thomas Clark's complaint: "The rich don't pay no taxes at all. Poor people been carrying this country since the United States began. It's time the rich people did their part." I asked Mr. Clark how much his tax bill had been in 2011, and he said he "couldn't rightly remember."

"Legalize drugs," said Jasper Marshall. "We've got more people in jail because of drugs than for murder and rape. Is that what we want?"

I could go on. But it's time to tabulate the results. Virtually every response from these willing gabbers fell into either of two disappointing categories: They were trivial and without substance. Or they were crude, coarse, and vulgar.

Some will say this is the nature of a democracy. Don't expect elegant answers from the common people. Don't look for sophisticated insights from the hoi polloi. Maybe you'd get more thoughtful, civil answers from shoppers at Barnes & Noble. But I've been around enough to sense that the distance and distrust I heard two weeks ago at Walmart, and then the trivial and vulgar responses this week, are not an altogether unrepresentative picture of the larger America today. The mass media feed it. The individualized social media (Facebook and Twitter) feed it. And it's not true only of the "Walmart class." We have become, across all classes and in so many ways, a trivialized and vulgarized people.

So I got the responses I was looking for. But now I almost wish I hadn't.

Email: jbelz@worldmag.com

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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