[Good Article] Taking a “War of Words” Too Literally

I want to share an article that has influenced me a lot. This piece was given to me during one of the GP lesson when I was in junior college.

The following is adapted from Deborah Tannen’s Taking a “War of Words” Too Literally, (March, 1998), Washington Post

Everywhere we turn, there is evidence that, in public discourse, we prize contentiousness and aggression more than cooperation and conciliation. Headlines blare about the Star Wars, the Mommy Wars, the Baby Wars, the Mamography Wars; everything is posed in terms of battles and duels, winners and losers, conflicts and disputes. Biographies have metamorphosed into demonographies whose authors don’t just portray their subjects warts and all, but set out to dig up as much dirt as possible, as if the story of a person’s life is contained in the warts, only the warts, and nothing but the warts.

It’s all part of what I call the argument culture, which 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 people who express the most extreme views and present them as “both sides.” The best way to begin an essay i to attack someone. The best way to show you’re really thoughtful is to criticize. The best way to settle disputes is to litigate them.

Smashing heads does not open minds. In this as in so many things, results are also causes, looping back and entrapping us. The pervasiveness of warlike formats and language grows out of, but also gives rise to, an ethic of aggression: We come to value aggressive tactics for their own sake–for the sake of argument. Compromise becomes a dirty word, and we often feel guilty if we are conciliatory rather than confrontational–even if we achieve the result we’re seeking.

The same spirit drives the public discourse of politics and the press, which are increasingly being given over to ritual attacks. On Jan. 18, 1994, retired admiral Bobby Ray Inman withdrew as nominee for Secretary of Defense after several news stories raised questions about his business dealings and his finances. Inman, who had held high public office in both Democratic and Republican administrations, explained that he did not wish to serve again because of changes in the political climate–changes that resulted in public figures being subjected to relentless attack. Inman said he was told by one editor, “Bobby, you’ve just got to get thicker skin. We have to write a bad story about you every day. That’s our job.”

It is easy to find examples throughout history of journalistic attacks that make today’s rhetoric seem tame. But in the past such vituperation was motivated by true political passion, in contrast with today’s automatic, ritualized attacks–which seem to grow out of a belief that conflict is high-minded and good, a required and superior form of discourse.

The roots of our love for ritualized opposition lie in the educational system that we all pass through.

Here’s a typical scene: The teacher sits at the head of the classroom, pleased with herself and her class. The students are engaged in a heated debate. The very noise level reassures the teacher that the students are participating. Learning is going on. The class is a success.

But look again, cautions Patricia Rosof, a high school history teacher who admits to having experienced just such a wave of satisfaction. On closer inspection, you notice that only a few students are participating in the debate; the majority of the class is sitting silently. And the students who are arguing are not addressing subtleties, nuances or complexities of the points they are making or disputing. They don’t have that luxury because they want to win the argument–so they must go for the most dramatic statements they can muster. They will not concede an opponent’s point–even if they see its validity–because that would weaken their position.

This aggressive intellectual style is cultivated and rewarded in our colleges and universities. The standard way to write an academic paper is to position your work in opposition to someone else’s. This creates a need to prove others wrong, which is quite different from reading something with an open mind and discovering you disagree with it. Graduate students learn that they must disprove others’ arguments in order to be original, make a contribution and demonstrate intellectual ability. The temptation is great to oversimplify at best, and at worst to distort or even misrepresent other positions, the better to refute them.

I caught a glimpse of this when I put the question to someone who I felt had misrepresented my own work: “Why do you need to make others wrong for you to be right?” Her response: “It’s an argument!” Aha, I thought, that explains it. If you’re having an argument, you use every tactic you can think of–including distorting what your opponent just said–in order to win.

Staging everything in terms of polarized opposition limits the information we get rather than broadening it.

For one thing, when a certain kind of interaction is the norm, those who feel comfortable with that type of interaction are drawn to participate, and those who do not feel comfortable with it recoil and go elsewhere. If public discourse included a broad range of types, we would be making room for individuals with different temperaments. But when opposition and fights overwhelmingly predominate, only those who enjoy verbal sparring are likely to take part. Those who cannot comfortably take part in oppositional discourse–or choose not to–are likely to opt out.

But perhaps the most dangerous harvest of the ethic of aggression and ritual fighting is–as with the audience response to the screaming man on the television talk show–an atmosphere of animosity that spreads like a fever. In more common forms, it leads to what is being decried everywhere as a lack of civility. It erodes our sense of human connection to those in public life–and to the strangers who cross our paths and people our private lives.

I found the ideas in this article still relevant to today’s world. Today we still pretty much live a society where you must attack others to prove that you are correct or better than others. The best to resolve a conflict is still keep arguing until one side surrender. Probably it is a good time for us to reflect on this, and maybe next we can try to appreciate and acknowledge others’ arguments before jumping into a rebuttal.

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