Both Sides Cause More Aggression

I just finished reading Deborah Tannen's The Argument Culture: Moving from Debate to Dialogue. Anyone who thinks our culture promotes violence (as most of the commentary about the Columbine High School Shootings does) should read this book. It is easy to point a finger at someone else (movies, the NRA) because there is plenty of blame to go around. Yet we are all immersed in the same culture, and Tannen's book reaches right to the heart of the problem covering topics such as the press, gender issues, the legal profession, politics, and our educational system.

She starts right off saying that this "is not another book about civility" which "suggests a superficial, pinky-in-the-air veneer of politeness spread thin over human relations like a layer of marmalade over toast." Instead, the book "is about a pervasive warlike atmosphere that makes us approach public dialogue, and just about anything we need to accomplish, as if it were a fight." Our argument culture "rests on the assumption that opposition is the best way to get anything done: The best way to discuss an idea is to set up a debate; the best way to cover news is to find spokespeople who express the most extreme, polarized views and present them as 'both sides'; the best way to settle disputes is litigation that pits one party against the other; the best way to begin an essay is to attack someone; and the best way to show you're really thinking is to criticize."

Do any of these sound familiar?

I was always baffled by my high school Debate Club's emphasis on being able to win no matter which side you took. I would only enter the Impromptu and Extemporaneous Speaking competitions because they seemed less arrogant and more focused on my personal views instead of facile arguments. I know that most lawyers and judges are more interested in legal maneuvering than in truth and justice, but I never connected that with the "tough" questions journalists ask of politicians or the critical essays written in grad school.

Tannen wires them all together into one explosive package.

She outlines the advantages and historical developments of our educational and scientific systems in a series of sections with evocative titles such as: "Roots of the Adversarial Approach to Knowledge," "Learning by Fighting," and "Graduate School as Boot Camp." The easy way to advanced degrees and scholarly recognition in academia is summed up thusly: "Attacking an established scholar has particular appeal because it demonstrates originality and independence of thought without requiring true innovation."

She analyzes the press and how it treats politicians in the chapter "From Lapdog to Attack Dog" and discusses what we lose as citizens when we have no respect for our leaders.

The part called "Training Our Children to Kill" seems especially relevant. Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman has done some amazing research on desensitization which he published in his book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. Tannen quotes from the book which says adolescents in movie theaters "are learning to associate this killing and suffering with entertainment, pleasure, their favorite soft drink, their favorite candy bar, and the close, intimate contact of their date."

Neither more concealed weapons nor fewer guns will cure our cultural aggressiveness. Tannen's quick fix is for each of us to not always force an issue into two sides. Occasionally, there is only one. For example, the knowledge of 99.999% of scientists will be presented in the media as one equal half of a debate against a few, way-off-the-deep-end Flat Earthers or Creationists (who can make religious claims, but not scientific ones). More often, there are multiple viewpoints, and if we each ask for the rest of the story in letters to the editors and calls to radio talk shows, we may contribute to an understanding instead of to an argument.