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by Caitlin Burke

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Deborah Tannen, sociolinguist and author of You Just Don't Understand, Talking From 9 to 5, and That's Not What I Meant, is back with a new book. This time, Tannen tackles the adversarial culture in The Argument Culture: Moving from Debate to Dialogue. Tannen discusses our culture's style of seeing issues and questions as having two sides and of setting "the" two sides against each other to battle for primacy. She charges that not only does the "argument culture" (or "culture of critique") make life more confrontational and frankly alienating, it also reduces the amount of information made available to spectators or information-seekers. Tannen mentions academia and the legal system in the course of her discussion, but the bulk of her analysis is directed toward the media, with its fashionable ritual of "tough questions" and its peculiar institution of "objectivity."

The Argument Culture is not a call for civility. Tannen recognizes that people flock to confrontation for many reasons, including enjoying a good fight, and that some issues do have two sides. Rather, Tannen warns against the way the culture of critique, by reducing every issue to two sides, can destroy the nuance and complexity of a discussion and even overvalue opinions that are utterly meritless. Two obvious examples are "nature vs nurture" and Holocaust denial. Any knowledgeable person understands that nature and nurture both contribute to development, but the very label "nature vs nurture" creates a false dichotomy -- and a false competition -- between the two concepts, clouding discussion of their effects with the frequent question "well, which is it?"

On a slightly different note, the idea that the Holocaust didn't happen is a fantasy with no factual basis whatsoever, but the media has given substantial column inches and air time to extremists who claim it never happened. The media defends itself as being responsible for "objective reporting," usually just a euphemism for "publishing a pair of diametrically opposed views," typically presented with no analysis to guide the reader as to whether there are yet more views or which view has the most evidence on its side.

As readers of Tannen will expect, there is a gender twist to this argument (that is to say, this careful sequence of facts and logic meant to persuade the reader of Tannen's point of view). Women are, on average, less confrontational, and so the argument culture will tend to value men's contributions, which are more likely to be in the idiom it values, and that's just if the less-forceful women contribute at all. Before a chorus of women (or much more likely, men) thunders forth to claim that women can be just as obnoxious as men, let me assure you, that is not in doubt. What is also not in doubt, at least to sociologists, psychologists, and other working in fields that study gender, is that men are more confrontational than women, that boys from the earliest ages get the message that a certain amount of aggression and acting out is, if not OK, then at least a pretty effective way to get attention.

But most of this book concerns questions that are asked by all people: Why do defense teams smear victims in court? Why are political campaigns so nasty? Why does the media care more about Monica Lewinksy than, say, the peace process in Northern Ireland? And for that matter, what is the story in Northern Ireland? Today's journalists may have been inspired by Woodward & Bernstein's investigation of Watergate, but that seems a far cry from today's ferreting out of sexual activities. Politicians are leaving public service in droves rather than volunteer as targets for mean-spirited "tough questions" or for invasions of their privacy. The media's attack stance is more cynical than skeptical, bolstering ratings with exaggerated knee-jerk criticism instead of using its tremendous research resources to serve, for example, in the watchdog function that made Woodward & Bernstein so inspirational.

Tannen's final question isn't "Can't we all just get along?" It's "What's a better way to do things?" She suggests that the ritual confrontations that have become such prominent features of, for example, media coverage, are badly misplaced, that they obscure truth at the expense of public safety and that they forsake information in the pursuit of entertainment. She isn't asking people to forsake the adversarial paradigm altogether "but to diversify: Like a well-balanced stock portfolio, we need more than one path to the goal we seek."

Ridiculously enough, Tannen has been charged with "just not understanding" that people pursue confrontation "because it's fun" (do these people even read Tannen's work?) Tannen most certainly understands that. She also understands that some places are more appropriate than others for that kind of "fun." The Argument Culture is a careful, intelligent exploration of way false dichotomies rob us of meaning, and it also challenges the media concept of "objectivity," which is problematic at best. I think people should read it, but I certainly hope that if they choose to, they will, in fact, read it. Tannen's take home message is simply that not every interaction should be adversarial and recognizing this can get us away from the cockfight mentality and closer to actual exchange of information. The engaged reader who actually hears Tannen out cannot help but enjoy her thoughtful analysis and relevant examples.

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