Sábado, 02 Marzo 2013 11:04

F. Intellectual Adversarialism

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Juanito1 was a bright little boy whose school decided to introduce debating as a learning approach. The topic of ‘racism’ was chosen, but no student wanted to take the position of advocating it. Finally Juanito consented to do it, although having been raised a Bahá'í, with the belief in the oneness of the human race, it went against everything he had been taught. After all, it was just another meaningless academic exercise, like so many other school activities... or was it?


Being a diligent student, Juanito studied the issue and prepared his arguments carefully, and on the day of the debate left for school assured and confident. However, when he returned home that afternoon, he was clearly distressed. His parents assumed he had lost the debate, but he assured them he had won. What was the matter then? With tears welling up in his innocent eyes, he confided his dilemma: “How is it possible for a lie to win a debate?” he sobbed softly. Not only had he betrayed his own beliefs and shamefully defeated his best friend in an open contest, but to make matters worse, he now had to deal with the existential crisis of seeing firsthand how falsehood can prevail over truth through skillful rhetoric.


So what’s the big deal?

To someone raised with the Western attitude that “winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing,”2 Juanito’s concerns may sound childish, naive and silly. However, from the viewpoint of the non-Western culture he was brought up in, they conveyed a depth of perception that only seeing the world anew through the eyes of a child might reveal: principle-centeredness, putting people first, concern for the feelings of others, commitment to the truth, and other wonderful qualities.

We have become so accustomed to what Deborah Tannen calls “The Argument Culture”3 that we have come to expect it, and to see it as natural. After all, hasn’t that always been the way of the world? Isn’t it inherent in human nature itself? This belief is based on the fact that in some cultures – especially in the West – argumentativeness is seen as a positive thing. It has become essential to our politics, economics, courts, media, gender relations, and even religion.

However, anthropology shows that numerous cultures see arguing and confrontation as unacceptable behavior, and replace it with careful, thoughtful listening, courteous, respectful responses, and dialogue instead of debate, thereby enhancing real communication, cultivating more positive relations and achieving greater social cohesion.4

So if it is a cultural trait, not a natural one, then what has led some Western cultures to be so contentious and quarrelsome? Some blame the rating-hungry mass media, especially talk shows, where dumbing down of complex issues, either-or polarization of nuanced public opinion, and false dichotomies are the norm, where uninformed ‘deniers’ masquerade as ‘the other side’ on equal terms with subject-matter experts in phony debates, in order to provide a pretense of ‘journalistic objectivity’.

Others point to today’s political system based on polarization of interests into parties, with their intense rivalries, smear campaigns, and electoral contests. Still others fault the adversarial judicial system of accusation and defense, which is not about discovering the truth of the matter under litigation, but only about winning the case at all costs, even if that means concealing, twisting or outright lying about the facts and their interpretation.

However, I would like to suggest that this Western love affair with controversy began long before mass media, politicians and attorneys started exploiting it to boost their ratings, constituencies and fees. Rather, its roots are to be found embedded deeply in the earliest formative stages of the academia, from whence it grew and spread until it permeated all levels of society, finally giving way to today’s ubiquitous culture of adversarialism. As Tannen states in “The Argument Culture”:

“Our schools and universities, our ways of doing science and approaching knowledge, are deeply agonistic [i.e., adversarial]. We all pass through our country’s educational system, and it is there that the seeds of our adversarial culture are planted. Seeing how these seeds develop, and where they come from, is a key to understanding the argument culture and a necessary foundation for determining what changes we would like to make.”5


Back to the Roots

The roots of intellectual adversarialism could be traced as far back as the oppositional dualisms of the Semitic and Zoroastrian cultures, but more recently to the ancient Greeks, who thought in binary terms of polar opposites. Every aspect of life, from sports to war, from politics to economics, was characterized by the struggle between opposing forces. There was no idea of win-win, but rather every victory necessarily required someone else’s defeat. At the center of the political and economic life of the ‘polis’ or Greek city was the ‘agora’ – at once political forum, public market and meeting place, where citizens gathered to debate politics, haggle over prices and argue about philosophy. The etymological root of the name ‘agora’ means contest or struggle, as in words such as antagonism, agonistic and agony, which says much about its purpose and the Greek worldview.

Within this context, Sophists were masters of persuasive technique and rhetorical argument. From their efforts in both philosophy and politics arose a method of formal logic based on oppositional models for the generation of knowledge, first systematized and published by Aristotle. All-male academies were established, where these methods were taught and used as essential tools of intellectual work. Here, young men were trained to become the builders of Greek political, economic and military systems, thereby reproducing and strengthening the foundations of a culture of contest, dispute and adversarialism from one generation to the next.

This is the culture that was eventually handed down to Christian Europe through the Roman civilization, whose ascendancy was also based on political, economic and military power. As the Roman Empire weakened, Southern Europe was invaded and plundered by the Goths, Visigoths and other barbaric peoples of Northern Europe who had not been vanquished by the Romans. All of this provided abundant historical material to produce the adversarial worldview that became the predominant influence in most aspects of Western society and culture.


Academic Adversarialism

Against this backdrop, it is easy to see how Medieval Europe’s educational approach was modeled after the Greek academies, first in all-male monasteries, then in ‘cathedral schools’ from the 9th century AD, next in ecclesiastic schools from the 12th century AD, and finally in secular schools strategically sponsored by aristocrats from the 17th century AD on.

In his depiction of the ensuing “Culture of Contest”, Michael Karlberg provides an excellent summary6 of works by scholars such as Noble,7 Moulton8 and Ong9, who studied these institutions in depth and found them to be highly adversarial in many ways through the late 19th century. They describe them as masculine and even misogynistic, women being perceived as worldly and sinful, to be avoided in order to preserve the purity of both body and soul. They had highly militaristic cultures, with rigid discipline and war-like regimes. Students saw themselves as ‘warriors’ in training to fight battles, both spiritual (as missionaries) and physical (as crusaders and inquisitors).

Some universities divided classes into ‘nations’ that fought ritualized armed battles. Sometimes these ‘soldiers’ went out into the neighboring communities at night to terrorize the local population, especially the women. There was a ritual enmity between professors and students, adversarial methods of teaching and evaluation, and frequent physical punishments. The primary teaching and research methods consisted of academic disputes and intellectual contests, so subjects that were best suited to this approach were favored over others.

For almost 2000 years, these breeding grounds for the culture of adversarialism trained each successive generation of leaders who made and wrote a Eurocentric ‘world history’, designed and implemented the institutions and practices that became today’s adversarial social structures, and taught and practiced the diverse scientific disciplines of the West, all of which coincided in portraying the world to the next generations through the dark lens of adversarialism. Even today, the predominant epistemological model in the West is one that perceives the generation of knowledge as a contest, not only between competing ideas but among contending individuals. As one former student described it: “Grad school was the nightmare I never knew existed… Into the den of wolves I go, like a lamb to the slaughter.”10


Adversarialism Spreads

Since the 15th century, widespread European conquest and colonization made it possible for this culture of contest to become firmly implanted throughout the world, not only in the form of structures of governance, but also in educational systems, thereby strengthening the underpinnings of adversarial thought. Even after liberation from colonist rule, during their ‘modernization’ virtually all newly independent nation-states chose to style their social structures––schools included––after adversarial Western models. This is how the culture of contest came to be promoted and reproduced on a global scale and became the predominant model for many educational institutions, especially in colleges and universities, but also at the secondary and even primary levels. Hence Juanito’s dilemma.

Intellectual adversarialism is not limited to schools, however, but has permeated all aspects of society. When someone states an opinion, others will almost instinctively find and point out any flaws in it, like vultures spying out any little slip-up to pounce upon. In the name of being thought-provoking, we have become just plain provocative. If 99% of what is said is true, and only 1% erroneous, the 99% is ignored and the 1% emphasized and magnified as if it were the bulk of the argument, even if it is a side issue. The Socratic Method of helping others discover truth for themselves has been deformed into a means of forcing opponents to admit they are wrong. The uniquely human need to seek after knowledge has fallen into a cut-throat competitive sport.

If someone does not understand a subject enough to recognize any mistakes, they will simply say “I am not sure I agree with everything you just said,” which has the effect of putting in doubt “everything you just said” without actually having to say anything intelligent about it.11 Critical thinking has been replaced with unthinking criticism. Others will put words in their ‘contenders’ mouths to pressure them to retract a statement, with “So what you are saying is that…” followed by some gross misrepresentation of what was said. Although purportedly meant to ‘stir things up’, such intellectual adversarialism only stirs up sediments that obscure the very issues it was supposed to enlighten. This is no longer ‘for the sake of argument’, but merely for the sake of arguing, as an end in itself.

Devil’s advocates abound. The original Advocatus Diaboli was an actual function within the Catholic Church from 1587 to 1983, whose aim was to point out weaknesses in proposals so that they could be strengthened. It was a collaborative role, similar to Edward de Bono’s “black hat thinking”, which seeks to anticipate and avert potential problems, but should not be used all the time. Now, however, the term commonly implies disputing the ideas of others while neither committing to the opposite stance nor exposing any thoughts of one’s own, thereby remaining immune to similar attacks. This is often combined with across-the-board cynicism––believing in nothing and no-one––or complete relativism in which everything goes and reality is merely what you believe it to be. Either extreme can act as an easy copout, because neither requires any real thinking or taking any actual stand on an issue. And the list of confrontational strategies goes on…

In such an environment, people often feel that it is safest not to speak their minds. Some of those who shun controversy and competition avoid discussing potentially controversial topics altogether, while others limit themselves to reviewing facts and events, or to citing the ideas of others as ‘interesting’. Therefore the adversarially-inclined minority tends to be the most outspoken, while those who feel repelled by such attitudes––predominantly women, ethnic minorities, and both the young and elderly––sink into the false peace of a silent majority. As a result, intellectual adversarialism appears to be more prevalent than it really is, and society as a whole is deprived of potentially valuable contributions from the bulk of the population. Once again, win-lose decays into lose-lose, as we saw in an earlier discussion on Social Dilemmas and Cooperation Theory.12



The pressing needs of today’s beleaguered world have no easy answers and demand thoughtful dialogue among all the diverse segments of society. On this path, intellectual adversarialism is not a stepping stone, but an stumbling block. Overcoming it will require the concerted efforts of all, and especially educational decision-makers, to build a culture of inclusive, synergistic dialogue. Creating a new paradigm of mutualistic education will not be easy, but rather will require profound transformations, both individual and institutional. Tannen found that teachers often prefer debate to dialogue simply because it is easier:

“One reason so many teachers use the debate format to promote student involvement is that it is relatively easy to set up and rewards are quick and obvious: the decibel level of noise, the excitement of those who are taking part. Showing students how to integrate ideas and explore subtleties and complexities is much harder. And the rewards are quieter––but more lasting.”13

We need to train students to be seekers after truth, not seekers after the falsehood in what others say, but like miners digging for gems of understanding among mountains of rubble, like farmers able to see the potential greatness in even the smallest seed. One useful approach is Peter Elbow’s “believing game” – hearing and reading the first time as if we believed what was being said – to replace the usual old “doubting game” of immediately jumping to what is wrong.14 Such methods can go a long way towards healing the damage done, for example, by teachers who delight in building up their students’ belief in a theory only to cut it to shreds afterwards, until yet another generation of scholars takes upon its shoulders the oppressive weight of abject cynicism. And cynicism spells the death of the very curiosity and creativity upon which our collective future depends.

In learning and teaching synergistic dialogue, we should be careful not to let the culture of adversarialism taint our understanding of the mutualistic principles on which such an approach must be based. Take the Bahá'í statement “The shining spark of truth cometh forth only after the clash of differing opinions,” for example.15 We need to avoid the tendency to see such concepts through filters inherited from the culture of contest, according to which this would refer to a clash of personalities instead of an encounter of ideas, or to dialectical dynamics of opposition instead of dialogical relations of complementarity.

To illustrate the difference, let’s take an analogy from the natural sciences. According to Newtonian physics, when atoms bumped against each other, the influence of those with the greatest mass and momentum prevailed over the others, much like what happens in an adversarial debate. However, in today’s gigantic accelerators, when subatomic particles collide, the sum of their collective mass, energy and momentum produces a burst of new particles that are quite different from the original ones––some stable and enduring, and others unstable and fleeting––which reflects the creative power of bringing together a diversity of ideas through mutual consultation.

There are numerous proposals available for moving from debate to dialogue. For example, Amitai Etzioni’s “Rules of Engagement” remind us that people with conflicting ideas are still members of the same community.16 The Bahá'í approach to mutual consultation17 promotes practices such as sharing what our conscience dictates, even when we fear that no one else will understand or accept what we say; presenting our thoughts with clarity, courtesy, dignity, and moderation; showing detachment from our ideas, clarifying them if necessary, but avoiding stubborn insistence that others accept them; treating others’ opinions with respect—listening attentively, and never mocking, belittling or ridiculing any person or idea; and not becoming angered or upset when others give ideas contrary to our own. This approach requires and fosters such attitudes and qualities as:

  • Sincerity and purity of motives: seeking the truth of a matter, and not just imposing one’s own ideas or promoting selfish interests;
  • Radiance of spirit: keeping a positive, enthusiastic outlook, and looking for what is true and useful in what others say;
  • Detachment from ego: offering one’s ideas as a gift to the group, and then letting go of it, separating it from the self, and not getting upset if others oppose or change it;
  • Attraction to all that is good: love of divinity and/or humankind, and commitment to higher principles such as unity, truthfulness, tolerance, compassion, and justice;
  • Modesty and humility: to avoid trying to appear better than others, but humbly recognizing one’s own limitations and admiring other’s qualities and achievements;
  • Patience and perseverance: when decision-making becomes difficult, keeping calm, not complaining, but also not accepting a mediocre decision out of exhaustion or boredom; and
  • A spirit of service: seeing oneself as a humble collaborator, and seeking the best for the whole.

In sum, a culture of peace implies educating for, in and through peaceful relations; fostering dialogue, consensus-building and non-violent communication; promoting understanding, tolerance and solidarity; and changing adversarial, conflictive, confrontational dealings to kind, compassionate, mutualistic, synergistic modes of addressing what matters most to us all. In order to promote a culture of peace in the world, we need to transform educational structures from breeding grounds of adversarialism to seedbeds of mutualism. Not only should students explore mutualistic contents through unfettered search for truth, but educational methods should be based on approaches such as mutual consultation or synergistic dialogue. Only then will no more Juanitos return home crying because a lie has defeated the truth. 




1. Although this is a true story, the name has been changed to protect the innocent. Any resemblance to a real person, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

2. This famous quotation is attributed to USCL Bruins football coach Henry Russell (“Red”) Sanders since 1950, and continues to be used today, especially in relation to sports.

3. Deborah Tannen, “The Argument Culture – Moving from Debate to Dialogue”. New York: Random House, 1998.

4. See, for example: Harry Eckstein, Division and Cohesion in Democracy: A Study of Norway. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966; Margaret Mead, Cooperation and Competition among Primitive Peoples. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967; Leslie E. Sponsel & Thomas Gregor, eds., The Anthropology of Peace and Nonviolence. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1994; and Graham Kemp & Douglas P. Fry, eds., Keeping the Peace: Conflict Resolution and Peaceful Societies around the World. New York: Routledge, 2004.

5. Tannen, p. 257.

6. Karlberg, Michael: “Beyond the Culture of Contest – From Adversarialism to Mutualism in an Age of Interdependence”. Oxford: George Ronald Publisher, 2004, 58-62.

7. Noble, David. A World without Women: The Clerical Christian Culture of Western Science, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

8. Moulton, Janice. ‘A Paradigm of Philosophy: The Adversary Method’, in Sandra Hardin and Merril Hintikka (eds.), Discovering Reality: Feminist Perspectives on Epistemology, Metaphysics, Methodology, and Philosophy of Science, Boston: Kluwer Boston, 1983.

9. Ong, Walter J. ‘Agonistic Structures in Academia: Past to Present’, Interchange: Journal of Education, Vol. 5 (1974), pp. 1-12; and “Fighting for Life – Contest, Sexuality and Consciousness”. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981.

10. Tannen, p. 268.

11. When countered with this non-argument, my response is often to say that I am not sure I agree entirely with everything I just said, either, that it is merely the best I have to offer at the moment, that I trust my thinking will evolve in the future, in which case I may very well realize that I was wrong on several points, and that I cordially invite them to help or accompany me along that journey.

12. Peter C. Newton-Evans, “Social Dilemmas and Cooperation Theory”. URL: http://cultureofpeaceprogram.org/ ( go to Articles – Defining the Problem).

13. Tannen, p. 257.

14. Peter Elbow. Embracing Contraries: Explorations in Learning and Teaching. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1986.

15. Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, compiled by the Universal House of Justice. Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1985, p. 87.

16. Amitai Etzioni, The New Golden Rule: Community and Morality in a Democratic Society. New York: Basic, 1996.

17. “Compilation on Consultation”, Bahá'u'lláh, Abdu'l-Bahá, Shoghi Effendi, and the Universal House of Justice. URL: http://bahai-library.com/compilation_consultation.

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