June 2, 2008

An Argument for Harmony

Filed under: China,east-west,politics,teaching — Kim @ 11:35 am

The other week I had to give a talk about argument in academic writing. Argument is an interesting enough topic but academic writing can be a bit dry and dusty, so I thought I’d “spice up” the talk a bit with some references to argument outside academia.

One of the texts I chose as a condiment was Deborah Tannen’s “The Argument Culture”. Tannen is a discourse analyst/professor of linguistics and also a bestselling author: Respect. The Argument Culture is subtitled “Stopping America’s War of Words” and its main point (argument) is that western-style discourse is all-too-often aggressive, polarizing and counter-productive. She also argues that too many modern Americans (and by implication westerners) believe that the best way to demonstrate intellectual prowess is to criticize, find fault, and attack. Does that ring any bells for you China Xpats?

This thesis is used to examine gender differences (her specialty), the education system, the legal system, and the media. In the light of what’s been going down recently with the “CNN versus all right-thinking Chinese” ballyhoo, I thought the media section was particularly appropriate. In this part, Tannen chronicles the emergence of an “attack dog” media from the days of Watergate, and shows the damage this can do to the political process and the people who serve in public office.

Point taken. But, it must be said, if America has an “attack dog” media then China’s is a “lap dog”. The media in China is the party’s pet poodle and this is a worse state of affairs, I would argue.

I also found a review of “The Argument Culture” that contains the following:

what this terrific American scholar suggests, to a large degree, is going Asian. Asian cultures…place great value on avoiding open expression of disagreement and conflict because they emphasize harmony.

Yeah…right! That is just such total crap it’s difficult to know where to start ripping it to shreds! Just joking. But actually this sounds quite a lot like one of Tannen’s other books, You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation which argues that: “Men grow up in a world in which a conversation is often a contest, either to achieve the upper hand or to prevent other people from pushing them around. For women, however, talking is often a way to exchange confirmation and support.”

So can we say then that the east is feminine and harmonious and the west is masculine and divisive? Well, we can if we want to piffle away with unhelpful and massive generalisations. Actually, China seems a fairly argumentative place to me, with a fair amount of shouting and finger wagging on the streets and at a national/nationalist level there is a readiness to take umbrage at perceived slights that often leads to noisy demonstrations and internet vituperations.

Ask my students what they think of CNN and they won’t wax harmonious. Walk around a Chinese town wearing a Free Tibet T-shirt and I’m fairly sure you’d get a harmonious pummeling.

In fact, it could be argued that it is the very lack of argument in China’s media that leads to such inflexible opinions (aka pig-headedness) and those notorious “hurt feelings” when the western media presents an argument “the Chinese people” haven’t heard before.

But then again, undeniably, there is CNN’s recent bungling reports of the riots in Tibet and, in general, too many knee-jerk criticisms of China the big bad bully.

There’s no easy answer to all these misunderstandings and confusions of course. Broadly speaking, China still doesn’t “get” western points of view because so much is censored, and the west indulges in sloppy criticism of China because of arrogance or because we cant be bothered to read up about a complicated state of affairs.

Just “Imagine” this though…cue Lennon’s familiar riffs…Less censorship, less aggression, more research, more consideration, more reflection, more patience. World Harmony! Peace and Understanding between Black and White and Yellow and Brown and Emo and Punk and Goth! Wouldn’t that be nice?

What…you don’t agree? Go fuck yourself.