Argument Culture (like bacteria?)

There was an interesting piece by Roger Ebert today in the Sun-Times comparing Bill O`Reilly to Charles Coughlin, and using some scholarly research as support. Ebert, I didn't think, had much of a mind at all since all he usually does is say rather obvious things about rather obviously bad films. But this piece changed my mind about him.

It was reminicent of Deborah Tannen's book The Argument Culture where she dismisses switch-side argumentation as fairly worthless for real problem solving or for access to truths about issues or problems we face in society. Her research is seriously lacking, as she does not cite any contemporary argumentation work from scholars who research this issue all over the globe.

Ebert, on the other hand, felt that to prove O'Reilly was a propagandist he had to cite some formal research study on propaganda. Not bad, although unfortunately, he falls into the same trap as Tannen, the trap of thinking of argument and debate as something that has a right and wrong way of doing it - that once a fallacy is identified, the use of it will be exposed and the bad results of propaganda will cease.

Arguing is like smoking in this way - people who smoke are not just unaware of the health risks. It's not like you can go up to a smoker, tell them it's unhealthy, and expect them to be surprised, thanking you while putting out their cigarette and promising to quit right away. They are fully aware that it is bad, they are doing it because they are addicted, or perhaps they feel like the enjoyment is worth more than the health risk.

And in argument it is the same way - I don't think identifying a bunch of fallacies or propaganda techniques are going to get much argument improvement. I think instead you will get the smoker's response - yea, yea, yea, I know, I just don't care. This is a pleasurable act. And when smoking bans appear, the rights discourse rises along side it. Smoking (like free speech) is a right that cannot be infringed, it is a personal liberty - just like Bill O'Reilly does according to Ebert. However, just telling us that these propaganda techniques are there won't do much against the pleasure of the act. This is the weak point of argument theory built on rationality. Perhaps we can try an experiment: Argument theory built on romanticism, myth, or aesthetics. Can it be done? I think perhaps there are clues that it has - the vast collections of aphoristic writing of the 18th and 19th centuries, koans from Buddhism, and mixed media art perhaps. Maybe television? Propaganda and fallacies are only bad if you accept rationalism and Reason as the starting point.

If we want to stop the public health problem of bad argumentation we need a better model than simple conciousness raising. "That is a fallacy!" says the argument student. "yea, yea I know," says the layperson, "I know they are bad for me, but I really just don't want to quit."