Monthly Archive for May, 2007

Approaching issues without dichotomizing them

In the readings for one of my courses, I ran across a particularly relevant article discussing the way we often needlessly dichomotize an issue and reasons why it can be very unwise. The article is actually the first chapter in Deborah Tannen’s book “The Argument Culture: America’s War of Words”. The name of the chapter is “Fighting for Our Lives”. I located the chapter on a University of Wisconsin-Madison web page. Unfortunately, this particular copy of the chapter omits references, but I doubt those would be too hard to find.

The basic premise of the chapter is that we should try to avoid looking at issues from opposing sides when doing so does not make sense. Some examples of debates I’ve heard on numerous occasions that should probably be discussed in a less argumentative form are “Which is better: Windows or Linux?” and “Which is right: intelligent design or evolution?”.

I think the reason that we sometimes tend to create debates or opposing sides is because it’s easier and, in the short term, more productive (arguably) to focus people’s energy on a clearly-defined side than it is to have people channeling their energy in different ways trying to better understand the problem. A good example of this is the tactic of Oceania’s leaders (from the book “1984” by George Orwell) to promote intense hatred for the current enemy of the state (Eastasia or Eurasia) in order to focus people’s attention on defeating the enemy rather than on determining why they were at war. This likely applies to current-day wars as well.

It’s a good idea to keep this article in mind when discussing ideas that are in danger of being forced into opposing sides. I think it’s best for all of us if we try our best to fully understand a situation rather than take the easy out of debating it for the sake of proving ourselves right.