Culture > Books

Books: Argument as war

Books | The author of a book on the rules of fair discussion just doesn't understand

Issue: "The gay getaway," May 2, 1998

Reading Deborah Tannen's new book, The Argument Culture, is like warmly embracing an ally at a political rally-and then realizing that your ally is attending for very different reasons. You are marching because you admire Candidate Smith, but your neighbor is marching because he hates Candidate Jones. You know it will be an uncomfortable alliance at best. Mrs. Tannen, a "sociolinguist" at Georgetown University, is an influential voice today and her work merits our attention; her last major book, You Just Don't Understand, spent more than four years on the bestseller lists. In her latest, she makes two big points. Our culture is overly steeped in warlike terminology-everything is a battle or an assault or a retreat or an attack. And the modern culture is far too critical-many prefer to shout down and demonize the opposition points of view rather than listen to them. I was struck when reading the biography of a general recently that it was entirely bloodless. There were campaigns and battles described, but the passages had a Nintendo feel to them. It became clear that the author had no real notion of what war is. Few of us do. We are far too free with our militaristic phraseology. But she's wrong when she says we use those words because we don't respect our opponents. What we clearly fail to respect is war. Mrs. Tannen's next point is also valid: Critical thinking has devolved into simply criticizing everything. But what she says is the poison is actually the cure. "Our glorification of opposition as the path to truth is related to the development of formal logic," she writes, "which encourages thinkers to regard truth-seeking as a step-by-step alternation of claims and counterclaims." Exactly! But the problem here is that she sees logic as a bad thing. She is wrong, of course. What our culture needs is to become reacquainted with the rules of logic and proper discourse. The book's most serious flaw is that it isn't about being nice to everyone-just to liberals. Mrs. Tannen decries warlike language, but then writes that Newt Gingrich "spearheaded the Republican Party's lurch to the far right and publicly attacked gays." (Spearheaded? Attacked?) She bemoans the failure of Hillary Clinton's health-care package as "a battle in which the biggest losers are the American people." (Battle?) Pro-abortion groups are reasonable, while pro-life groups "use terrorist tactics to stalk, harass and murder physicians and to bomb clinics." She's one-sided; she just doesn't understand. I am all for dismantling the argument culture. But I'd rather do it by reintroducing real debate, instead of telling one side to shut up.

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