Writ 1122 Pete Gibson
Reading Response #2 January 10, 2011
Deborah Tannen’s work Fighting for our Lives is a critical observation of a certain habit our culture has grabbed a hold of, and that habit is something she labels the ‘argument culture.’ The argument culture, Tannen writes, urges us to approach the world in an adversarial frame of mind: the best way to approach any sort of idea, dialogue, or conversation is to set it up as a debate. Tannen ties in the example of a news company, who tries to find news anchors who express polar extreme views, so as to present “both sides” of a story. She remarks further that this ‘argument culture’ has become the everyday method of public interaction; that is, to show that one is really thinking, one must criticize and oppose what was said. This truly is not a bad thing, because we are pursuing truth, and in this quest, we have learned to observe the ‘two sides’ to every issue. But, like everything in life, moderation must be applied for the tool of debate. Debates have their use and their place, but should not be the only way to understand and approach our world, and this is the author’s concern.
Tannen is concerned that our culture has become so accustomed to this habit of arguing that we have framed everything into a debate, in which winning or losing is the main concern. She has observed that, while conflict and opposition are needed in a dialogue just as much as cooperation and agreement, the scale has been tipped, with conflict and opposition being overweighed. Tannen is worried that this is damaging to society, as the continual ‘battle’ mindset approach to every dialogue can lead to verbal inflation which can hurt people. It also encourages people to look for irrelevant rhetorical weaknesses in the opposing argument, rather than listening to the important matters at hand. Tannen calls this habit ‘agonism,’ deriving from the Greek word agonia, which means contest. She views an agonistic response as a kind of ‘programmed contentiousness—a pre-patterned, unthinking use of fighting to accomplish goals that do not necessarily require it,’ which rarely pushes society in the forward direction. Tannen goes on to list the repercussions of the previous observations, concerned that this increasing trend of opposition is attributed to the breakdown of our society. Since community is a blend of connections and authorities, both of which are deteriorating from this adversarial attitude, alienation then forms, and the trend spirals communities into states of detachment and hostility.
While the reader is susceptible to criticizing the validity of this very writing through labeling Tannen a social skeptic, she does conclude the work with various alternate methods to this solution. To avoid the automatic use of adversarial formats—the assumption that it’s always best to address issues by fighting over them—Tannen believes we as a culture should do a better job of observing all sides of the argument (rather than just two), and to expand the notion of ‘debate’ in general, expanding the creative nature of the dialogue, rather than precluding the dialogue with negativity.