September 20, 2005


Jack Army is a saint of a blogger. He often points to views that he thinks can enhance grokking, not just stuff he agrees with. And he takes a lot of flak for it, as the extensive comments on another post about females in the military indicate.

I just finished reading the book The Argument Culture. Tannen's premise is that we set everything up as a battle in our society. Shows like Crossfire and Pardon the Interruption are typical examples of how people are pitted against each other to fight on TV for our entertainment. We live in a culture that values debate and naturally frames our issues as two warring sides (e.g. the battle of the sexes).

The argument culture urges us to approach the world--and the people in it -- in an adversarial frame of mind. It 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 spokespeople who express the most extreme, polarized views and present them as "both sides"; the best way to settle disputes is litigation that pits one party against the other; the best way to begin an essay is to attack someone; and the best way to show you're really thinking is to criticize.

This book was published in 1998; I'd love to hear Tannen's take on blog comment sections. She talks about the technology that makes email impersonal and incognito, moreso than any other communication that our parents/grandparents had before us. The comment sections on blogs takes this to an all new extreme. Fake names and fake email addresses make it possible for people to hide behind a cloak of anonymity...and to say whatever they want in order to win the argument.

Tim left blogging because of the Death of Civility, a theme I return to often here when the argument culture of blogging gets to be too much for me. When you read the comments section over at Jack Army's blog, you see how women behave in a way they'd never behave if they were face to face. The safety of anonymous comments gives them the guts -- or nerve -- to lash out at fellow human beings. And these are 1) all women who are 2) in or married to the military. They have common ground, yet the insults start flying from the safety of their own keyboards.

And Tannen is sure right that the issue of women in the miltary immediately becomes an "us vs. them" dichotomy. The comments section quickly breaks into two camps fighting against each other; instead of finding ways they could agree about women's role in the military, they focus on ways they disagree. Sadly, it becomes an "I'm all right and you're all wrong" type of fight, when in fact there could be a lot of grey area if they really tried to find it.

Interestingly enough, Tannen would say -- and I agree -- that this fight would probably never happen face to face. In a social setting, these women would find conciliatory ways to discuss the issue without labeling every female soldier as a slut and every military wife as a jealous hag whose husband is probably cheating on her. These women likely wouldn't dream of making that generalization publicly in front of women who belong in the opposite group, but they have no qualms about making those statements in an anonymous comments section.

It's fascinating really, this death of civility. And quite scary as well.

(Important disclaimer: I too am a blogger, and blogging lends itself to disagreeing; I am not an impartial reader pointing fingers at the women at Jack Army's blog. These are things that I just finished reading and need to digest some more and apply to my own writing, though I think I'm already averse to namecalling and flaming. I'm just surprised that I found such a telling example of this argument culture phenomenon a mere two hours after I finished the book.)

Posted by: Sarah at 06:25 AM | Comments (6) | Add Comment
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1 I'm a big believer in debate, but for it to work everyone in the debate (which may have more than two sides) has to be sincerely interested in finding truth. You can't be in it just to "win"; you have to take seriously what the other people say and constantly ask yourself whether they might have a point.

Posted by: Pericles at September 20, 2005 08:04 AM (EpPuP)

2 Real debate is caring about getting answers to questions. It's about trying to understand. It is easier for some people to go on the offensive rather than argue ideas and facts. Anonimity is a great cloak for cowards and idiots. I take anonymous comments far less seriously than if someone ID's themselves. I don't know that it is so much about the death of civility as it is a failure of personal accountability. Whatever it is, we should never stoop to the level on lowest common demoninator ourselves.

Posted by: Mare at September 20, 2005 10:06 AM (KmNMw)

3 People need to realize that many POVs are right all at once, depending on the experiences of the person providing them. Most people are usually a little bit right and a little bit wrong all at once. Very few debates have an absolute good/wrong answer.

Posted by: Julie at September 20, 2005 02:51 PM (w7n+v)

4 I wonder how much of the rise of the "argument culture" is due to the vast increase in the incidence of litigation in our society.

Posted by: David Foster at September 20, 2005 11:02 PM (7TmYw)

5 Wow, very cool post. It is interesting that so quickly after you read the book you find something that seems to confirm the thesis of the book. I find all of this very fascinating. Good post! Oh, and thanks for linking it.

Posted by: JACK ARMY at September 21, 2005 11:42 AM (L20+G)

6 capitalism = competition = argument This is good in capitalism because history, results & measurements can resolve arguments (if it sales it works) --- However when non-capitalism is involved (social values- politics) arguments can never be won (shades of gray) --- When politics infect everything argument becomes toxic (as in newspapers and the greater MSM when they stopped reporting and begain making everything political (win or lose). By reporting the facts and getting politics out of the OPERATION of government it is possible to get back to a less argumentive culture

Posted by: mike at September 21, 2005 04:59 PM (y4Ivx)

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