In 1999, American linguist Deborah Tannen published a book called "The Argument Culture: Stopping America’s War on Words." Tannen’s thesis in the book is to challenge the notion that confrontation, opposition, argument, vigorous critique and verbal attack are the best strategies to reach an understanding about complex issues.
Despite her compelling contentions that this leads to partial and perverse understandings of the issues at stake, this is how most political debate is conducted, how our court system operates and how some journalists practise their trade. When I read the book, it resonated with some of my own experience when I was a doctoral candidate in philosophy as it has for the rest of my academic career. In fact, I learned early in my intellectual life that the best way to construct philosophical arguments was to imagine a hypothetical devil’s advocate who was going to challenge every position that I articulated. I would then proceed to think about every potential counter-argument to my position. To the extent that I could actually do this and effectively respond to every critique, I could be confident that my argument was sound.
Again, if you think that engaging in intellectual inquiry is like war games, this is probably a good strategy. But is this a reasonable approach to any critical human inquiry or important social or political issue?
I was reminded of this when watching the last U.S. presidential debate with Mitt Romney/Barack Obama on television. A lot of it was interesting and, in fact, entertaining. I believe that U.S. President Obama is much better at this kind of parry and thrust than is Mr. Romney. But attack and counter-attack banter and thrust and parry arguments seem like a very odd methodology for ascertaining who truly is the best candidate for the critically important role of choosing an American president.
Yes, there are other fora in which to gather information including reading their respective policy position papers, evaluating their previous performances and attending public talks by the candidates themselves, but for many individuals this is the only venue that they will utilize in deciding how to vote on an issue of importance not just to Americans but also to the rest of the world.
There has been a lot of empirical evidence for some time showing that facility in engaging in this type of argument is class-biased, culture-biased and gender skewed toward white, educated males. It is not that others are not capable of thinking and arguing this way but it may communicate far better to some than to others. There may consequently be a skewed distribution of individuals who have the agility to engage, absorb and fully comprehend information presented in this way. So, critique is easy but do I have any bright ideas about an alternative strategy?
Well, nothing remarkably different but perhaps we could have opening statements that are longer than two to three minutes. It is hard to say anything meaningful in that kind of format and time-frame. Perhaps more dialogues with randomly selected citizens televised in face-to-face encounters with real people asking real questions would also help. I know that this is problematic, given the nature and range of human behaviour that might emerge in such a context. But surely it would be better than this highly stylized, artificial attack and counter-attack that we call political debate, not just on television, but in every town hall type debate that I have experienced in political campaigns and public elections since I became interested and engaged in political democracy as a teenager.
Let’s try to come up with something better than this artifice as a mechanism for choosing our political leadership.
» Deborah C. Poff, Ph.D., is president and vice-chancellor of Brandon University. She is also editor of the Journal of Business Ethics, and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Academic Ethics. Her column appears monthly.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition October 27, 2012