I am re-reading The Argument Culture: Moving from Debate to Dialogue by linguist Deborah Tannen. It was published in 1998, but as Washington wrangles over the debt and deficit crisis I find this book to be more relevant than ever. In fact, I wish every member of Congress, the President, and the press would read and ponder it thoughtfully.
Tannen describes the consequences of what she sees as a culture of argument and critique in our society. In academia, this is manifested in a sense that only negative commentary shows truly critical thinking. In journalism, there is a compulsion to frame everything in terms of two opposing sides. This precludes more nuanced multisided approaches and in some cases overlegitimizes fringe opinions unsupported by fact. Also, too frequently the press feels it’s done its job by presenting two sides without taking the added step of investigating the truth of their arguments. Meanwhile, in politics, there is a downward spiral of public discourse into increasingly partisan vituperation. Sound familiar?
In light of the current debate in Washington, the following quotes seem especially apt: “The term ‘compromise’ has two senses. It can mean ‘weaken, undermine, destroy’…. It can also mean ‘give in for the purpose of reaching agreement.’ The first sense of the word is decidedly negative, but the second sense could well be positive. In recent years, even this sense of the word has taken on negative connotations…. There was a time when the ability to compromise was considered a great strength. Henry Clay…was called the ‘Great Compromiser’ — and this was said with admiration.”
The Argument Culture is still available in paperback, and we are going to reorder it for our stock at UPB. If enough people read and act upon it, who knows — maybe we can start to change the public discourse for the better.
Sorayya Carr, UPB / Posted on July 30, 2011