I started reading Deborah Tannen‘s Argument Culture (Booksense) today because I am considering using it for my election-themed composition course this fall. Tannen’s view of the contemporary state of argument and debate is strikingly different than that of Gerald Graff, who basically advocates acknowledging and even embracing conflict. (Granted, these are pretty different projects: one on academia and the other on public discourse.) Tannen, by contrast, questions the prevalence of argumentative conflict to begin with, asking if it sometimes gets in the way of real understanding and, importantly for my purposes, the democratic process. At the end of her first chapter, she writes
Philospher John Dewey said, on his ninetieth birthday, ‘Democracy begins in conversation.’ I fear that it gets derailed in polarized debate.
In conversation we form the interpersonal ties that bind individuals together in personal relationships; in public discourse, we form similar ties on a larger scale, binding individuals into a community. In conversation, we exchange the many types of information we need to live our lives as members of a community. In public discourse, we exchange the information that citizens in a democracy need in order to decide how to vote. If public discourse provides entertainment first and foremost – and if entertainment is first and foremost watching fights – then citizens do not get the information they need to make meaningful use of their right to vote.
Of course it is the responsibility of intellectuals to explore potential weaknesses in others’ arguments, and of journalists to represent serious opposition when it exists. But when opposition becomes the overwhelming avenue of inquiry – a formula that requires another side to be found or a criticism to be voiced; when the lust for opposition privileges extreme views and obscures complexity; when our eagerness to find weaknesses blinds us to strengths; when the atmosphere of animosity precludes respect and poisons our relations with one another; then the argument culture is doing more damage than good.
I offer this book not as a frontal assault on the argument culture. That would be in the spirit of attack that I am questioning. It is an attempt to examine the argument culture – our use of attack, opposition, and debate in public discourse – to ask, What are its limits as well as its strengths? How has it served us well, but also how has it failed us? How is it related to culture and gender? What other options do we have?
…There are times when we need to disagree, criticize, oppose, and attack – to hold debates and view issues as polarized battles. Even cooperation, after all, is not the absence of conflict but a means of managing conflict. My goal is not a make-nice false veneer of agreement or a dangerous ignoring of true opposition. I’m questioning the automatic use of adversarial formats – the assumption that it’s always best to address problems and issues by fighting over them. I’m hoping for a broader repertoire of ways to talk to each other and address issues vital to us (25-26).
I hope to finish this book in the next day or so, but I’m already leaning towards using it.