The “Argument Culture” and Public Lands Controversies

booksAs frequent readers know, I am always interested in who is empowered by certain framings and approaches to issues, and who is disempowered. I was wondering one day, whether solving problems through litigation was more attractive to some kinds of people than others. I developed the hypothesis, based on my own observations, that “warfare” analogies might be more attractive to one gender than to the other. While exploring this, I ran across an interesting essay by Deborah Tannen linked here from 1998:

Below are some excerpts:

Balance. Debate. Listening to both sides. Who could question these noble American traditions? Yet today, these principles have been distorted. Without thinking, we have plunged headfirst into what I call the “argument culture.”

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.

Italics above are mine..


The argument culture has a defining impact on our lives and on our culture.

• It makes us distort facts, as in the Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Hard-ing story. After the original attack on Kerrigan’s knee, news stories focused on the rivalry between the two skaters instead of portraying Kerrigan as the victim of an attack. Just last month, Time magazine called the event a “contretemps” between Kerrigan and Harding. And a recent joint TV interview of the two skaters rein¬forced that skewed image by putting the two on equal footing, rather than as victim and accused.

• It makes us waste valuable time, as in the case of scientist Robert Gallo, who co-discovered the AIDS virus. Gallo was the object of a groundless four-year investigation into allegations he had stolen the virus from another scientist. He was ultimately exonerated, but the toll was enormous. Never mind that, in his words, “These were the most painful and horrible years of my life.” Gallo spent four years fighting accusations instead of fight-ing AIDS.

• It limits our thinking. Headlines are intentionally devised to attract attention, but the language of extremes actually shapes, and misshapes, the way we think about things. Military metaphors train us to think about, and see, everything in terms of fighting, conflict and war. Adversarial rhetoric is a kind of verbal inflation—a rhetorical boy-who-cried-wolf.

• It encourages us to lie. If you fight to win, the temptation is great to deny facts that support your opponent’s views and say only what supports your side. It encourages people to misrepresent and, in the extreme, to lie.


How can we overcome our classically American habit of seeing issues in absolutes? We must expand our notion of “debate” to include more dialogue. To do this, we can make special efforts not to think in twos. Mary Catherine Bateson, an anthropologist at Virginia’s George Mason University, makes a point of having her class compare three cultures, not two. Then, students are more likely to think about each on its own terms, rather than as opposites.

In the public arena, television and radio producers can try to avoid, whenever possible, structuring public discussions as debates. This means avoiding the format of having two guests discuss an issue. Invite three guests—or one. Perhaps it is time to re-examine the assumption that audiences always prefer a fight.

Instead of asking, “What’s the other side?” we might ask, “What are the other sides?” Instead of insisting on hearing “both sides,” let’s insist on hearing “all sides.”

We need to find metaphors other than sports and war. Smashing heads does not open minds. We need to use our imaginations and ingenuity to find different ways to seek truth and gain knowledge through intellectual interchange, and add them to our arsenal—or, should I say, to the ingredients for our stew. It will take creativity for each of us to find ways to change the argument culture to a dialogue culture. It’s an effort we have to make, because our public and private lives are at stake.

Here’s another piece where Dr. Tannen describes her own experiences:

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 that 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.

Here’s a link to her book.

Question: Can you imagine ways to foster a broader approach to resolving natural resource/public lands disputes that are more in line with a dialogue, rather than an argument, culture?

4 thoughts on “The “Argument Culture” and Public Lands Controversies”

  1. There’s no easy answer, of course. Focusing from the beginning of planning cycles on a “desired future condition” or range of condition parameters is a good way to set the table. Then, in theory, the discussion moves to “how do we get there.” The Forest Service has tried this, but the “argument culture” seems to prevail in agreeing on a desired future condition.

    FWIW, this paper is worth a look: “Desirable functional processes: A conceptual approach
    for evaluating ecological condition,” at:


  2. Steve-
    John Rupe wrote a good piece on DFCs a couple of years ago here. As usual, when John writes something, it is very thoughtful and comprehensive, as well as reflecting his years of experience.

    Unfortunately, when I looked at the Desirable Functional Processes paper abstract:

    Hence, an ecosystem or its components are considered functional if the processes observed are those that move the system to a higher state of dynamic equilibrium, as opposed to a state that is dysfunctional and demonstrates a trend towards system degradation.

    It sounded a bit like what Lackey spoke of here in terms of normative words.

    If the people who wrote the article meant, “we should try to get sediment out of streams,” well, fine. But if you go to vegetation “function” it is easy for people to wrap themselves in overlapping cloaks of systems and normative talk, such that ultimately you have no idea what they’re talking about specifically. Yet the need to litigate appears to be less about philosophical abstractions, and more about actual projects and actions that people don’t want and believe to be harmful to something.

    For example, ultimately, do you keep more sediment out by thinning and changing fire behavior or not? Back to square one.

  3. When there is so much polarity in an issue, a compromise often ends up pleasing neither side. The polarity in politics seems to be ramping up over the past decade, not a good sign to me. Science is becoming increasingly infected with advocacy and political agenda. And natural resource management and science has also become polarized. Hence the push for collaboration.


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