Lisa Schwarzbaum
March 13, 1998 AT 05:00 AM EST

The Argument Culture

Current Status
In Season
Deborah Tannen
Politics and Current Events, Essays

We gave it an A-

If I had a million bucks, I’d pay Deborah Tannen to sit by me at all times, providing simultaneous translation, in her graceful, intelligent, and persuasive way, of what people are really saying when I think they’re saying something else. Not having a million bucks, I rely on her books — popular, accessible, inviting presentations that make scholarly research look like the most fun a girl can have short of movie reviewing — as guides to communication. In You Just Don’t Understand, Tannen analyzed male and female conversational styles without once needing to rely on Mars and Venus as planetary shorthand; in Talking From 9 to 5 she illuminated what goes on at the office. Now, with the empathy of a therapist and the authority of a linguistics professor (at Georgetown), Tannen stretches her scholarship further outward. In The Argument Culture, she studies the prevalent American form of public discourse — debate — and suggests that the format has run amok.

Tannen traces the argument culture, which polarizes debate and tends to regard verbal attack ”as the best if not the only type of rigorous thinking,” to ancient Western traditions. But the old Greeks probably never envisioned a populace hooked on metaphors of battle (the war on drugs, the war on poverty), where charting who’s up and who’s down is a public sport engaged in by the media, encouraged by politicians, monitored by lawyers, and consumed by increasingly cynical citizens. ”The culture of critique,” Tannen explains, ”undermines the spirit not only of people in public roles but of those who read about them, afraid to believe in anyone or anything because the next story…will tell them why they shouldn’t.”

(The gentle chastisement of an attitudinally aggressive magazine like ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY is hereby noted.)

In her trademark clear, well-organized style, and generously using examples from her own life, Tannen moves from arena to arena, backing her thesis with plenty of research. For the media, she suggests, aggression became popular during the Watergate era, and ”[w]hat we have now is a kind of scandal inflation plus predictable cover-ups that are their inevitable by-products.” (Does not paying one’s nanny’s Social Security taxes carry the same ”-gate” weight as ”Contragate”?) In politics, the argument culture means that even the day after an election, campaign strategy for the next round begins again, with one side working against the other rather than together. In law, a ”push to kill your adversary” has blown litigation out of control. Even technology aggravates, as face-to-face communication is replaced by voice-mail and E-mail, and flaming anger is abetted by anonymity.

Drawing on her previous best-selling work, Tannen sees the roots of this antagonistic approach in the contrasting play styles of little boys and girls; she also recognizes that ”[p]eople in many cultures feel that arguing is a sign of closeness.” And this leads her to some suggestions for change — suggestions about which I’d like to hear, if not an argument, then at least spirited discussion. Because 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.” Tannen admires Japanese tradition, where ”winners and losers both have their place and are expected to coexist, the losers retaining a large measure of respect.” Native Hawaiians hold ”setting things right” ceremonies. Chinese yin and yang sees polarities as complementary, one needed to balance the other.

But American public discourse may not be inherently well suited to an Asian model. We locals live here, at home with Crossfire, EW, Kenneth Starr, and a baby-boomer President who swears he didn’t inhale. And while employing various techniques adopted from other cultures is appealing (the author likens the approach to creating ”a well-balanced stock portfolio” in order to create ”more than one path to the goal we seek”), we are fixed — let’s not say trapped — in an American civilization so big, so interlocked, so high-speed, that the individual who chooses dialogue over debate is in danger of being drowned out, overruled, left behind.

As Tannen suggests in this inarguably excellent book, amass enough of those trusting, open-minded individuals, and what you’ve got is a new cultural force. But in the meantime, I suspect many will cling to a proverb once uttered by that old Zen master Ronald Reagan: Trust but verify. A-

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