Friday, November 20, 2009

Having or Making an Argument

I received an e-mail yesterday in which my correspondent mentioned a book written ten years ago by Deborah Tannen, Professor of Linguistics at Washington’s Georgetown University. Titled The Argument Culture: Stopping America’s War of Words, Professor Tannen focused on the decline she had observed in the quality – that is, the tenor – of verbal and written exchanges between prominent persons who are charged (or in some cases simply usurp) with responsibility for maintaining dialogue necessary for society’s to function.

At virtually the same time, a second e-mail – one whose origin was totally unrelated to the first but whose content was similar surfaced. This second e-mail was the transcript of a November 3, 2009 interview by BBC’s “Hardtalk” of Noam Chomsky, a well-known international linguist who is also a prominent voice in the development and application of modern political science philosophy.

Tannen was not the first to address the rise of incivility in rhetorical settings. But her critique starts with the observation that societies risk the collapse of their culture and governing values when the art of reason and reasonableness in discourse are discarded. Prominent in this calculus is the role played by competing elites – the “pillars of society” – and their factions, one of which will emerge with sufficient support from the public to assume control of the levers of economic, cultural, and military power. “Winning” might bespeak public approval to implement policies and programs favored by the successful faction. But winning may also induce the successful faction to reject any and all input from the defeated opposition, thereby undercutting efforts to reconstitute effective consideration of ongoing problems.

These elites comprise the adversarial political ranks (in the U.S. most often limited to two contestants at a time), financiers and corporate CEOs who pay for “”public oriented investigations” by pro-sector “experts,” “committees” and “commissions” to sway the outcome of public policy debates and ultimately votes on society- altering appropriations. A third set of elites is the judiciary and the law, an arena in which litigation has exploded exponentially since 1994 when the Republican Party created and “sold” the “Contract with America.” The fourth category is the unswerving interpretations of fundamental religious doctrine as eternally unchangeable.

The outcome to which Tanner (and Chomsky) point is the collapse of the long-standing distinction between “having” an argument and “making” an argument. Think back to the Federalists Papers in which Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay (the principal writers) and others – all well-read – marshaled the pros and cons of the issues that were about to determine whether or not the new constitution would be passed. This was not an attempt to “pick sides” followed by a further attempt to “pick a fight” – physically -- with supporters of the candidate who lost the intellectual competition.

There were, of course, incidents when fisticuffs and even worse violence occurred between supporters of political opponents. Hamilton died from a bullet in a duel in 18064 By 1828 Andrew Jackson presented himself as a plain-spoken man who trusted the people; some called him “King Mob.” The Illinois 1858 senatorial contest between the “Giant Killer,” Stephen Douglas, and the Rail-Splitter, Abraham Lincoln, saw bullying and assaults by supporters after the principals had left the verbal confrontation. The last quarter of the 19th century saw the rapid rise of the newly-influential media moguls more interested in causing controversy by construction and then destroying “balanced arguments” designed to sell more papers and magazines. “Truth” – such as it was -- was not wanted by the media. All they wanted was what added to controversy: never mind exposing the indifference of those whose objective was to get rich or to win reelection to positions in government.

(As to how self-interested politicians can become, today’s Washington Post quotes Rep Kevin Brady (R-TX) as saying to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner: “For the sake of our jobs, will you step down from your post?”)

In the end, the question is whether “making” an argument has been more useful than “having” an argument to political philosophers intent on peaceful elevation of the rights of men and sustaining human dignity in western nations. For Chomsky, linguistics and radical politics do not necessarily “inform” each other daily, but they “can be traced to Enlightenment (and earlier) concepts of creativity and freedom as being at the core of essential human nature, most clearly revealed in the normal use of language.”

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