Here we are, well into the digital age, where all of our endless electronic activity can be reduced down to simple binary: 1’s and 0’s. We’re either “Team iPhone” or “Team Android.” Whether it’s Pepsi or Coke, Yanny or Laurel, Edward or Jacob, a black and blue dress or a white and gold dress, it seems as if everything we see and do is framed as an either/or. We are all products of our own environments, and we continue to spend more and more time in the online digital environment, a global village of sorts. After a while, the internet may begin to democratize our cognition and our assessment of the outside world around us. The rapid dissemination of mass communication and the frenzied pace of news and social media leaves little time for humans to process and reflect for more than a knee-jerk reaction to any and all stimuli. As complex and life-like as computers can be nowadays, at their core they are still just a huge amalgam of binary. Isn’t it our unique ability to understand more than two sides of anything that separates humans from the binary minds of machines? Shouldn’t we celebrate an open-minded, multi-faceted approach to understanding our world? How did we get so dichotomous?
We live and die by dichotomies.
With the recent hearings for Judge Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination in our immediate rearview, the 2018 midterm elections on the horizon, and politically polarized, tribalistic tensions continuing to surge, now is an appropriate time to discuss this cultural climate we’ve established for ourselves in the United States.
The argument culture has taken a strong foothold in American discourse (Tannen, 2015). We see it in sports, where—aside from the actual competition on the field/court— “expert analysts” will shout at each other for hours on nationally televised broadcasts. As of late, this argument culture most blatantly reveals itself in our political system, where politicians, pundits, and partisans have used increasingly polarized language to mislead, patronize, or personally attack their opponents. This outward divisiveness has created fervent political tribalism in the United States. This has worked its way into the news media as well, with an increase in aggressive, confrontational TV broadcasters such as Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham, Ben Shapiro, etc., and powerful outlets becoming more partisan amidst the extreme polarization of their audiences. Conflict is irresistible to viewers, and the pace of the news cycle and media communications doesn’t allow for much more contemplation or reflection than a hot-headed, two-valued, “us vs. them” orientation.
The roots of this cultural shift lie in our infatuation with entertainment. Before the age of mass communication, public political discourse was generally cordial and intellectual. As Neil Postman describes in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, there were several popular political debates in 1858 between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. Each candidate would speak for an hour (or up to 3!) at a time before granting the floor to the other (Postman, 44). These men were not talking over each other, spewing hateful accusations or unjustified personal attacks; they were simply engaging in thoughtful, reasonable discussions about the nature of their country and its government. The nature of competition between the two was decent and respectable, for the most part. In fact, after being received with a lively round of applause from the crowd at a debate in Ottawa, Illinois, Stephen Douglas responded, “Silence will be more acceptable to me in the discussion of these questions than applause. I desire to address myself to your judgment, your understanding, and your consciences, and not to your passions or your enthusiasms” (Postman, 45). This type of rational attitude toward political discourse shows a multi-valued orientation, which makes today’s bull-headed, two-value oriented politics seem like a childish pep rally.
The roots of this cultural shift lie in our infatuation with entertainment.
We can take the recent confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh as an example of this two-valued orientation. During his confirmation hearing, after he was accused of sexual assault by multiple women, a person with a two-valued orientation might say, “He’s guilty! He should be disbarred and jailed!” or “He’s innocent! Women/liberals/news media are making it up as an attack on all men!” Conversely, a person holding a multi-valued orientation may think, “Who’s to say if he’s innocent or guilty, but this is a big country, with plenty of brilliant, ambitious, good-natured people. Surely there is another candidate among President Trump’s original list of 25 nominees for this position who has not been accused of sexual assault, drunken belligerence, and bar fighting by their law school peers.” Of course timing also played a role in pushing through the confirmation, with the midterm elections looming and the Senate majority up for grabs. But that further proves that this was a decision made by partisan, “us vs. them” thinking, rather than an open-minded assessment of the situation. As S.I. Hayakawa noted in his book Language in Thought and Action, “Action resulting from two-valued orientations notoriously fails to achieve its objectives… [it] increases combativeness but sharply diminishes the ability to evaluate the world accurately” (p. 124).
The most monumental shift toward today’s “argument culture” occurred with the inventions of mass communications such as radio, film, and television. With these technological developments came the wide coverage of sports, where the national glorification of competition intensified. It was one thing to read about elections, games, contests, and other forms of competition in a daily or weekly newspaper, it was another to experience them in the moment, to hear the emotion in the announcers’ voices, to see the determination on the faces of those involved. Furthermore, most radio dramas, popular movies, and TV shows often portray common themes of “good vs. evil,” “justice vs. crime,” and other polarizing ideas, further reinforcing a two-valued orientation on their audience, perhaps even subconsciously. As this two-valued orientation slowly overtook the previously held multi-valued orientation by the general public, conflict (and even war) became pure entertainment in the minds of the citizenry, and therefore the same emotional response applied. Impulse and blind passion began outweighing rationality, and the insatiable desire for entertainment became more and more apparent. In-depth analysis and reason could not compete with the raw emotions stirred up in viewers by passionate conflicts and dramatic arguments.
The Vietnam War was the first American military conflict to be broadcast on television, and, in effect, it created the illusion of the “spectacle of war.” The news presented coverage of the Vietnam War (and every military conflict since) with bold headlines, special effects, and its own theme music, all encompassed by an irresistible amount of patriotism. Viewers became enthralled by war, because they could feel (some of) the emotions associated with combat from their living room, without the looming threat of death that the soldiers faced on the front line. The horrors and hardships of war were essentially “cut from the script,” and American viewers, for the most part, loved it. Because of this “spectacle of war,” the argument culture was officially born, driven by the idea of agonism, which Georgetown professor Deborah Tannen describes in an article titled “The Argument Culture,” as “taking a warlike stance to accomplish something that is not literally a war.” This mindset has become the backbone of our culture. We are constantly exposed to the “War on Poverty” or the “War on Drugs;” popular TV shows have titles like “Shipping Wars,” “Storage Wars,” and even “Cupcake Wars” (Tannen, 2015). Professional athletes who play through an injury are deemed “heroes” or “soldiers,” and many big games are referred to as “The Battle of _______.” Even most of our political speech is military-based. Consider the language on a plaque at an exhibit in Washington D.C. that states: “Every four years, Americans elect a president. And every four years, battle lines are drawn as presidential candidates face-off in the conflict zone known as the campaign trail” (Tannen, 2015).
Similar to the old adage, “you are what you eat,” it could also be said, “you are what you consume.” Americans have been actively consuming two-value oriented conflict, from sports competitions to emotionally-charged debate shows to actual military warfare for the last half-century, and it has shown in the development of our public discourse. The resulting overall close-mindedness may have been best described by the American author Michael Crichton, who claimed, “We are all assumed, these days, to reside at one extreme of the opinion spectrum, or another…But in the real world, few of us hold these extreme views. There is instead a spectrum of opinion” (QOTD.org). By accepting the idea of an opinion spectrum, and making an attempt to revive the multi-valued orientation that many of our ancestors practiced, we may be able to take steps away from the juvenile and dichotomous argument culture that has become so popular in our society.
Hayakawa, S. I., and Alan R. Hayakawa. Language in Thought and Action. 5th ed. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990. Print.
“John Michael Crichton, 1942 – 2008.” QOTD.org. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Feb. 2015. http://www.qotd.org/search/search.html?aid=3795&page=6
Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. New York: Viking, 1985. Print.
Tannen, Deborah. “The Argument Culture.” American Academy of Arts & Sciences. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Feb. 2015. https://www.amacad.org/content/publications/pubContent.aspx?d=1061