Deborah Tannen

The Argument Culture, Part II

VTR Date: April 20, 1998

Guest: Tannen, Deborah


Guest: Deborah Tannen
VTR: 4/20/98

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And this is our second program on The Argument Culture, the insightful new Random House book by Deborah Tannen, University Professor of Linguistics at Georgetown. The author also of That’s Not What I Meant, and You Just Don’t Understand.

Well, Dr. Tannen, we were parsing this wonderful new book of yours, The Argument Culture, and the ideas that undergird it. And I was sort of expressing my concern about your gentler, warmer, good, better feelings about what is happening in terms of the argument culture. You’ve described something that has been built up. It’s a society of debate rather than discussion. But you do feel that there are mitigating forces now.

There’s a point in this wonderful new book that I thought was just beautiful. This is subtitled The Self Versus Society. And you talk about having been a lucky member of a behind-the-scenes tour at the Library of Congress that included a visit to the conservation laboratory where technicians labor to preserve old and decaying books of historic values. And you came upon the book from which Thomas Jefferson drew his sense of personal happiness and the pursuit of happiness. And I wonder if you’d just elaborate on that Henry Holme volume.

TANNEN: Yes. Somebody, our guide pointed out, “Here you see someone is working to restore, preserve the book from which Thomas Jefferson got the phrase, ‘pursuit of happiness.'” And I was very intrigued by that. And as the rest of the tour went on, I went to look more closely at that book and to actually read the passage. And I was astounded to see that the context in which that phrase, “the pursuit of happiness” was used in that original book by Henry Holme was “Equal pursuit of the happiness of all.” It was not about pursuit of personal happiness for the individual, but the general happiness of everybody in that society. And I was astounded at how we have moved away from the idea of the pursuit of happiness of all, and come to focus more and more on the individual happiness of the self.

I talk about how, in our Western culture in general, our American culture in particular, we think of the self as something at war with society. If you listen to the talk shows, you hear over and over how you have to resist society’s pressure to get in touch with your true self. Society tries to get, to push you one direction, but you have to honor your individual self. There are many cultures of the world where there is no concept of the self except in a network of society. So people think of themselves as who they are because of who they are connected to, starting with their immediate families, their parents, their siblings, their kin, their group.

HEFFNER: How much, to what degree, can we look to responsibility for this attitude, to the emphasis upon psychiatry, psychoanalysis, the assertion of devotion to self that has characterized so many of our recent decades?

TANNEN: Yes, clearly there’s a focus, and we are a society that has been very influenced by psychology, that we see the development of the personal ego and the personal psyche as the core challenge in our lives. And perhaps this is how my work as a sociolinguist provides balance to that. I don’t question that psychology has helped people a lot. And every institution that I question in The Argument Culture has had great achievements, and I’m not trying to wipe them out or negate them; just trying to broaden the repertoires. So maybe as a sociolinguist I can add to the framework of psychology the framework of understanding the role of language in our everyday lives, and the power of language to affect how we think about the world and ourselves. So I’m suggesting that our using war metaphors for everything actually makes us think about things in terms of war, makes us approach the people we disagree with as if they were our enemies, and this may be playing a role in the lack of civility that everybody talks about, the fact that when you just go out in your everyday life to get something done, the chances that the person you deal with is going to be, yell at you and take an adversarial stance toward you, that those chances go way up.

And the feeling (again, I guess I keep getting back to this), the feeling of disconnection between our individuals in the world and between the people and the institutions of our society. Here’s another example from politics: When FDR had his Fireside Chats, there was no opposition response. For that short time people regarded the president as the president. They may have voted for him; maybe they didn’t. Maybe they liked him; maybe they didn’t. At that moment he was their president. Now, when the president gives the State of the Union Address (and this is true for the Democratic president now, but also the Republican president that preceded him), it’s immediately followed by an opposition response. People don’t have the privilege to regard their president as their president and not a Democrat, a Republican, a career politician who’s trying to advance his career, even for a few moments of a ceremonial event that could represent something and make them feel connected. The way it’s talked about is always breaking down that sense of connection.

This is one of the problems, as well, with what I call “agonism” or “ritual attack,” ritual opposition, ritual warlike stance among the press. Orville Shell, who is one of the great statesmen of a journalist, writes that in his day, when he was trained, journalists always sought for some sense of connection with the people they were writing about. They may be critical, they may not approve, but there was some human connection that they were trying to bring out. He says, when you write from the position of sarcasm, of sneering, of a superior stance, that it breaks down that sense of human connection that has a corrosive, undermining effect both on the journalist who’s writing and on the people who read. And I think this is one of the dangers of the argument culture.

HEFFNER: All right. But now, as we said last time, that has been done, journalism has moved in that direction, probably because it seemed attractive to do, probably because it attracted more readers, more viewers. And your point is further that probably that is changing, that probably we are tiring of the debate society rather than a discussion society. And that the media people will move away from that posture. Is that a fair statement of what you’re thinking?

TANNEN: Almost, but not exactly. I think that it has actually been the ratcheting-up of this warlike stance, this aggressive stance, the valuing the show of aggression, has developed not so much in order to, because it has worked to keep audiences. I think it’s more a reaction to the loss of audience. And so it’s been a desperate attempt to get the audience.

The shows on which I’ve had the worst experience of the producer setting up a fight have been shows that have rating problems. So they’re not the shows that have the greatest ratings, but they’re the ones that are afraid of losing their ratings.

HEFFNER: Yes, I noted that in the book.


HEFFNER: And I also noted that some of those assumptions are not true today, just some months after you committed this to the paper. The Jerry Springer Show, which everyone talks about (and I happened to see it the other night) presumably had trouble with the adversarial posture. Not so much trouble that he wasn’t leading the pack in terms of audience. So I don’t know where that meta-analysis gets us.

TANNEN: Well, you know, Jerry Springer worries me less than some of the news shows, because Jerry Springer is not pretending to communicate information that voters need to make decisions at the ballot box. It’s entertainment. So I’m more concerned when that ethic of aggression, that commitment to the most conflict, the more conflict the better, when it creeps into the newspapers and into the news affairs.

Let me give an example from newspapers. Newspapers tend to give, to value balance. And obviously this is…

HEFFNER: Tended.

TANNEN: Pardon?

HEFFNER: Is it fair to say “Tended,” put it in the past?

TANNEN: Well, no, I think even now there’s a feeling that you have to provide balance. But it is often interpreted as: get somebody to express one side, get somebody to express the other side, and then you’ve done your job, without looking into the allegations that each side makes. So the idea that there are always two sides can actually lead to giving a forum to someone who should not have that forum. As an example, people who deny that the Holocaust ever occurred have had more success in the United States than any other country, because they have been able to manipulate our devotion to everything having two sides. For example, Deborah Lipstadt wrote a book about Holocaust-deniers tactics. She has been invited to be on television if she will allow them to also invite deniers and have a debate. She didn’t want her book to become an excuse to give national airtime to deniers. And she said, “There is no debate.” And she was told, “Don’t you think people have a right to hear the other side?”

Now, we think of this as the, of course, this is television, but we see something quite parallel in print. Deniers have been very successful placing ads in college newspapers claiming that there’s no evidence that the gas chambers existed. They call themselves Committee on Open Debate on the Holocaust. So we can overapply the idea that everything has to have two sides. Sometimes there’s only one side: the side of truth. Most issues have more than two sides. It’s a crystal of many sides.

HEFFNER: You move away from that very quickly, don’t you? It doesn’t sound right to us in this country, “Most issues, there is one truth.” You don’t like that yourself.

TANNEN: No. In most issues, in most cases there are more than two sides. There are many sides.

HEFFNER: Right. But you said before that there are places that is one truth.

TANNEN: Yes. Yes. No, I think there are.

HEFFNER: There is a truth.

TANNEN: There certainly are. Yes. I’m using both, sometimes there’s one, sometimes there’s many, to question our unthinking devotion to the idea that every issue has two sides, which to us sounds so right and so fair. And the same thing I am questioning the devotion to balance. If we define balance as, “If you have an accusation on one side, you have an accusation on the other side, then you’ve done your job because you’ve provided balance,” sometimes print journalists will actually scour the fringes of lunacy to find another side. There are examples I encountered where journalists researched a story, spent days with people, and then didn’t write the story. And when the principals asked “Why not?” they said, “Well, we couldn’t find anyone to disagree with you, so there really wasn’t any story.” If the idea is that every story must have two sides, then sometimes you’re just not covering things that you should cover.

HEFFNER: How much do you think of the adversarial culture or the debate culture or the debate-rather-than-discuss syndrome comes from something that would seem on the surface to be far afield, and that is the social Darwinian notions that characterize this nation in the last century, and in this century seem to have been given considerable support in the past couple of decades?

TANNEN: Yeah, I think there’s certainly a connection. The glorification of competition, the sports model, as a way to approach everything. Sports, after all, is in itself a metaphor based on war. And if we’re not using war metaphors, we’re using sports metaphors. So I think the competition model is very closely related to this. The idea that everything has a winner and a loser. Winning is valued at all costs regardless of what, you know, what you have to do to win. And you see this even in sports coverage, which I actually write about. Sports, we often say, are wonderful because it’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game. And we have kind of transmogrified into “It doesn’t matter how you play the game, so long as you win.” [Laughter] And you can see this in the sportscasters’ way of talking about the events that they describe, where they will often emphasize who won and why, and talk less about the skill, how well people played. Again, that doesn’t always pay off. In the Olympics, the Czech team shocked everybody by winning the hockey medal, and some of the commentators said it was because they actually were better hockey players now because the NFL has emphasized the physical violence of the sport so much that they were getting players who didn’t play all that skillfully but were really good at beating up the opponents.

HEFFNER: Well, of course, you say, you use the metaphor yourself, “paid off.” It’s built into our marketplace ethos, isn’t it? I mean, everything is winning or losing, profiting or losing, someone profits, someone loses. How can you have a society devoted to the discussion that you want rather than debate when we’re so wrapped up in that Darwinian notion?

TANNEN: Well, yes, money is at the root of a lot of these forces that I’m talking about. The abuses of the discovery system in law, for example, where one side will depose witnesses they don’t really need to depose, or ask for huge numbers of documents they don’t really need to see. In one case the documents were produced, but on chemically treated paper that couldn’t be scanned into a computer, so they couldn’t be used, and the opponents claimed smelled bad so that it made the people who manipulated them sick. So all these dirty tricks in law, they mainly are turning up in the corporate lawsuits where there are huge amounts of money at stake.

But it’s the very existence of that, the money motive that may swing the pendulum the other way. Because there’s evidence now that even corporations are moving toward mediation of cases because even they don’t want to spend those huge amounts of money. The tremendous rise of attack tactics in political campaigns — and, of course, the very word “campaign” is a military metaphor — is, in many cases, motivated by the infusion of so much money into the campaigns that the money is there, and so they use it to dig up, electronically dig up anything that can be found on the opponent, and paying for these tremendously expensive television ads, because all that money is there. So that certainly is a big part of it.

HEFFNER: Are you suggesting that if we do finally get around to effective control of money in politics we will have effectively controlled that aspect of our political life too?

TANNEN: Oh, I certainly think it will go a long way toward being part of the solution if true campaign finance reform were possible. It’s not the whole story, but it’s certainly part of it.

HEFFNER: Let me get back to a question I’ve asked you before. You dealt with it, but I want to extend the way you dealt with it. Gender. What are the… You must be looking for some way out of what you describe in your book: the adversarial culture, the culture of criticism, the debate culture. What role does gender play in that, in the way out?

TANNEN: Yeah. There’s an important model. I said that in the culture of boys and men, opposition and fighting is much more likely to be used as the ritual way to accomplish something that isn’t necessarily about fighting. Whereas girls and women will certainly fight when there’s a conflict, but they don’t tend to fight for fun. Much less likely to think it’s entertaining to watch a fight. Much less likely to, you know, for example, when you’re having a discussion, an intellectual discussion, take an opinion opposed to the other person as devil’s advocate: you don’t believe it, but you think it makes a better fight. Boys are the ones who will lead the rough-and-tumble play where they take out a gun and go, if they don’t have guns, maybe take a carrot, “Bang, bang. You’re dead.”

Maybe the answer is to move more toward the model of reserving conflict for true conflict. I’m not suggesting that we can avoid conflict. There are always competing views, competing interests. Politics: you’re going to have two parties, you’re going to have a campaign, and a fight between them. In the law, you’re going to have two sides in a case, and there’s going to be have some way to resolve that conflict. So I’m not saying that we should all be nice to each other and we should not fight. That’s not possible. But I’m saying if we can move away from the ritualized, everyday, knee-jerk, automatic use of opposition and fighting for everything, we can reserve our energy and our attention for the true fights.

HEFFNER: Yes, but the question I’m asking you is: How can gender play a role in that “If we can only…?”

TANNEN: I’m not sure gender can directly play a role. I believe that the more, it is having an effect as people realize that there are women in the mix. And the effect of that maybe is the role. For example, in politics there was a realization a couple years ago that women were turned off by attack ads more than men, and that often it was the woman’s vote that was making the difference between one party and the other. It was called “the gender gap.” The “soccer moms” were talked about during that last election. And so politicians themselves realized that they had to appeal to women voters if they wanted to get their candidates elected, and that, in many cases, meant backing off from the attack ads.

Programming, I think Titanic is an example where appealing to the young… Apparently the biggest audience for Titanic are the young girls, not the young boys. And that has been a tremendous mega-hit. I think you’re going to see copycat films trying to appeal in that way to the female audience. As we get more and more women in law, this may have something to do with the movement within law, and it is the biggest, fastest-growing movement within the law today toward mediation, toward what’s called “ADR,” alternative dispute resolution. Professor Carrie Mankel Meadow at Georgetown is in tremendous demand running workshops, training lawyers to use dispute resolution. And not that this is entirely new. I have in the book a quote from a very well-known lawyer of the 1800s named Abraham Lincoln who made a much-quoted statement that a lawyer’s first responsibility is to be a peacemaker and try to prevent the two sides from litigating. And he says there will be business enough if you make your clients realize that often both sides lose in litigation in cost, in aggravation, in emotional expense.

HEFFNER: Is there any indication that women in politics — I’m not now talking about women as voters, but women in politics — turn away to some extent from this confrontational approach?

TANNEN: There is. Marjorie Margolies Mizvinsky wrote a book, and she was one of the women, that famous Year of the Woman when there were more women elected to the House of Representatives than there had been before. It was a pretty small number, 23, 24, but more than we had had before. She wrote a book about those women in the House. And she says in that book that, yes, their approach to politics was less enjoying the fight and more really wanting to get things done. And I actually quote one of the male members of Congress, because I wanted to make it clear this was not just the women’s view of what they were doing. He said that he felt that the women were more concerned with just getting the job done than they were in this ceremonial opposition, making themselves look tough and standing up just to fight because it looked good.

HEFFNER: What’s been the response to your analysis of what’s happening to us?

TANNEN: I have to say I was pretty scared.


TANNEN: Because I have several chapters that are quite critical of the press, quite critical of movements in the law and politics and academia. So I thought all these people might get pretty mad at me. I say in the book that a conciliatory approach often works much better than a pugnacious approach. And I have evidence of that. Pat Buchanan, for example, many people say gets a break from the press because people see him as a nice guy. His personal manner is conciliatory, even though his public persona is pugnacious. So I was ready to get quite a bit of attack. The overwhelming response I’ve gotten is, “You’re saying something that I was increasingly aware of, and it’s such a relief to have a name for it, and to hear described what I was sensing.” And in that sense it’s quite similar to the response I got to You Just Don’t Understand: “You’re putting into words something that I was experiencing.” So I’ve been very gratified, very relieved.

HEFFNER: You feel too that that’s an indication that there was this movement, this discontent with the malcontents whom you have been describing.

TANNEN: Yes. And in a sense, in a way, I’m reassuring to each of these institutions by pointing out — this is my major point, really — pointing out that you can’t just blame the press, just blame the lawyers, just blame the politicians, that it’s all intertwined. It’s a force, the argument culture is a force throughout our society now, and it’s affecting our personal lives as well. So seeing, yet there is this connection, a thread, going through all the institutions and connecting up with our own spirits and our own souls, I think it’s, in a way it clarifies it for everybody, and makes people feel less personally attacked as well.

HEFFNER: Of course, that leads me to ask, as I’ve asked you before: In the argument culture, the argument society, how do you move away from, how can you possibly move away from something that is as all-pervasive as you describe it? You say you’re not attacking the press, you’re not attacking lawyers, you’re not attacking the individual practitioners of the debate or argument society. You’re saying this, “Here we are. We’ve searched for the enemy, we’ve found the enemy. We are the enemy.”

TANNEN: I’m a tremendous believer in consciousness-raising. You know, again, people told me, when I wrote You Just Don’t Understand, “Well, how are we going to solve these problems? You didn’t give us tips.” And then people come to me and say, “You know, once I realized that when my wife came home and told me about a problem, she didn’t want me to fix the problem, she just wanted me to listen, suddenly I’m able to listen, and it’s really helped our marriage.” Now, if I had given instructions, “Men, when your wife comes home and tells you a problem, just listen,” you couldn’t do that. You wouldn’t understand why you were doing it. It’d be too frustrating. As my husband said, “It’s too frustrating when I know the solution to just listen.” [Laughter] But if you understand why the other person is talking as they are, you think of ways of changing it yourself.

I believe that this awareness of each individual, the producers of the TV shows, the editors of the newspapers, the hosts of the shows, the writers, the politicians, as people become aware, just that little consciousness-raising that when you find yourself doing something you just stop, a voice says, “Wait a minute. Do I have to do it this way? Could I put it another way?” It’s going to be step by step. But because there is a frustration, I think people will be motivated on their own to just think about doing it another way.

HEFFNER: I like your approach. I wish I could adopt it.

TANNEN: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: Deborah Tannen, thank you so much for joining me again on The Open Mind to discuss The Argument Culture.

TANNEN: It is always a pleasure to talk to you.

HEFFNER: Thanks, Deborah.

And thanks too, to you in the audience. We hope you join us here again next time. And if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4 in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150.
Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.