AGREEING TO DISAGREE:
THE CULTURE OF ARGUMENT IN AMERICA
A Conversation with Deborah Tannen and Michael Toms
So often the view of the world we see or hear
about is one of conflict-opposing sides going at it hammer-and-tong.
Newspapers, radio, television, even university lectures are filled
with combative rhetoric: the drug war, the battle of the sexes,
who's winning or losing in media-created polls, rather than addressing
the issues of concern; news analysis shows set up to be divisive,
with opposing sides arguing past one another. It's as if everyone
is engaged in a war. How has our society come to this state of
affairs? What is really happening?
The answers to these questions and others serve
as the focus for this dialogue with Deborah Tannen. She is best
known as the author of You Just Don't Understand: Women and
Men in Conversation, which was on the New York Times Bestseller
list for nearly four years. It was this book that brought gender
differences in communication style to the forefront of public
awareness. Another book, Talking from Nine to Five: Women and
Men in the Workplace: Language, Sex and Power, a New York
Times business bestseller, does for the workplace what the earlier
book did for women and men talking at home.
Dr. Tannen is one of only three professors at
Georgetown who have been appointed to the distinguished rank of
university professor. She has been on the linguistics department
faculty since 1979. In addition to her linguistic research and
writing, she has published poetry, short stories and personal
essays. She is also the author of The Argument Culture: Moving
from Debate to Dialogue (Random House 1998).
MICHAEL TOMS: Your previous books have
dealt more with personal communication, and in this book, The
Argument Culture, you're dealing with communication in this society.
So there's a leap there.
DEBORAH TANNEN: There
is a leap, but there is a natural thread. The first book I wrote
for non-academic audiences was That's Not What I Meant. It introduces
my idea of a linguistic approach to understanding relationships,
taking into account conversational style-the power of the way
we express ourselves based on our ethnic background, regional
background; and gender was one part of that.
The one chapter
on women and men from that book is the one that got disproportionate
attention. People almost demanded to hear more about that. So
that led to You Just Don't Understand. After the success of that
book, people said to me, "Well, this has been wonderful in
helping me in my private relationships, but what about work?"
Many people said, "I spend more time talking at work than
I do with my spouse." So that was the natural next book,
Talking from Nine to Five.
While I was on
the road, talking publicly about these books, I became so aware
of the way that discourse was being framed. Here I had written
books promoting understanding between women and men, saying we
could have less friction, less hostility and better relationships
if we take into account the different conversational styles and
how they're influenced by gender as well as other things. And
it would always be referred to as "the battle of the sexes,"
"the gender wars."
I had done a
public conversation with Robert Bly at the Open Center in New
York, and we called it "Toward a Reconciliation Between Women
and Men." Well, somebody who wrote a column about books in
a major newspaper wrote about it, and decided that it was going
to be a debate: "Head-to-head, toe-to-toe, for the first
time, Robert Bly and Deborah Tannen face off!" And when we
ended up having a conversation instead of a fight, the media disappointment
was resounding. It was quite bizarre. Some of the journalists
who had come to cover it didn't write anything at all; some of
them ridiculed us because we hadn't fought; and some wrote their
own fantasies about what would have happened if we had fought.
It was so dramatic. One person said, "He would have hit her
over the head with his bazouki." The violence of it! And
of course the male-against-female violence of it-so against the
spirit of what we were doing.
All of these
experiences made me think about why we were approaching everything
as a war-the battle, the conquering, the victory-and it made me
want to explore the deeper impulse of that. The Argument Culture
is not just another book about civility. I certainly believe that
we should try to get more civility in our lives; but there's something
deeper that I'm trying to talk about-the power of words to frame
how you think about things, how you feel about things, how you
perceive the world. The tendency in our culture to use war metaphors
so pervasively, and to frame everything as a metaphorical battle,
influences how we approach each other in our everyday lives. We
end up thinking problems are insoluble, because we have allowed
the polarized extremes to frame the debate.
MT: Why do you think that we've come
to use the war metaphor? It really permeates our whole society-
from news to sports, you'll find the battle metaphor.
DT: It's closely related
to our emphasis on the division between self and society, the
individual self at war with society, whereas many other cultures
see the self as inseparable from the network of society. It's
related to the history of our universities going back to the medieval
university, which was a seminary. It grew out of the religious
framework in which the early monks were warrior monks, Christian
soldiers, and the universities were set up in this way. They were
seminaries, but they were set up on a military model. And the
fact that it was all-male was definitely a factor; they took men
out of their homes, and put them in this isolated environment;
they had a secret language, Latin; they read about military exploits,
and they had to learn to dispute publicly. It was not a search
for knowledge, it was honing your disputation skills so that you
could publicly defend a thesis and attack a thesis. This is the
history of our intellectual tradition. The Western tradition has
placed a lot of emphasis on oral disputation. This is different
from the Chinese and other Asian traditions, which would have
found oral disputation quite unbecoming a sage.
MT: You came up with the Greek word, agonia
and the concept of agonism. Tell us about that.
DT: Yes. In a way, this is
the key to the whole theme of this book. Agonism is a reference
to the Greek word for war, agon or agonia. Agonism is ritual opposition-the
use of a warlike format when what you're doing is not literally
a war. Sports is agonism; it's a ceremonial combat. And what we
have now in our public discourse is a great deal of ceremonial,
ritual, automatic combat-not the genuine opposition of ideas in
contact with each other, not the genuine opposition when you see
there is a wrong in the world and you feel passionately it is
your responsibility to oppose that wrong. That form of public
opposition I'm all in favor of. Jewish tradition, in fact, says
that it is the responsibility of the individual to speak out against
a wrong that he or she sees. What I am questioning in this book
and calling into question is the use of ritual, automatic, knee-jerk
use of debate formats, setting everything up as a war when it
really is not called for and not appropriate. Any issue that you
want to discuss you get a debate going. That means you're going
to get the most polarized views you can, get people that you know
are really good at shouting at each other and encourage them to
shout each other down, because you think it makes a more lively
MT: There is also this idea of having
"balance," so if you have one view then you automatically
have to have an opposing view in order to have balance, when in
point of fact sometimes there isn't even an opposing view; or
one is made up.
DT: It grows out of a very
laudable desire of print journalists to be fair. But if it's over-applied,
often it means you don't even allow any idea to get developed,
to live for a moment, before you find someone else to oppose it.
It causes people to feel cynical. People end up feeling, "I
don't know what to believe. I read this, and then immediately
I read that critics say it's not true."
It's similar to what happens with
people's cynicism about politics. There is so much of what I call
the "ethic of aggression"-among journalists, as well
as in many other fields. In this book I show the thread that runs
through all our great institutions-journalism, politics, law and
academia. This ethic of aggression encourages journalists to constantly
attack people in public life. Now, I would never say that journalists
should not be adversarial toward people in public life who are
committing wrongdoing. But, my concern is the assumption that
only the exposure of wrongdoing is worth writing about. The result
is that people end up feeling more cynical about their public
leaders than the journalists themselves feel.
The journalists know that it's agonism,
that it's a ritual opposition. James Fallows wrote a book in which
he quotes a study: Journalists and average people were asked,
"Do you think most public leaders are more or less honorable
than the average citizen?" Journalists actually believed
that most politicians were more honorable than the average citizen.
The average citizen believed that politicians were far less honorable.
So citizens are taking literally these agonistic attacks that
journalists realize they're doing just because it's their job
and that's what the genre requires, in their view.
MT: Watergate was very much a turning
point for the press. Larry Sabato says that before Watergate journalists
were like lapdogs. They took at face value anything that the government
presented. After Watergate they became watchdogs, which is the
appropriate role for the press. In recent years they have become
attack dogs, going after every public official for every little
thing. The result is that anyone in a public position feels under
DT: The situation of Bobby
Ray Inman is a good example of what I call agonism. He was someone
who was sure to be confirmed as secretary of defense. He held
the most eloquent press conference out of Austin, Texas when he
withdrew, in which he tried to call attention to the unfairness
of being attacked from all sides. He quoted editors who had said
to him, "We have to write negative stories about you; that's
our job." He quoted journalists who said to him, "I
have to write this story; it's what my editor wants." He
quoted his senator friends who said, "Of course you will
be confirmed, but we have to ask tough questions, make the confirmation
hearings unpleasant for you. That's what's expected of us now."
He said, "Public service is a sacrifice. I have to disrupt
my family; I have to find a new place to live. My entire life
is a compromise; my income is going to go down. But I do it in
the spirit of public service. And now the expectation is I also
should put up with this kind of attack." He says, "In
Washington, everyone tells me, 'You have to get thicker skin.'
At home everyone tells me, 'You'd have to be crazy to put up with
that.'" He said, "You guys have got to be careful. I'm
pulling out, and a lot of other people are also not going to be
willing to serve under these circumstances."
When I heard that press conference,
I thought, this is great; he put it out there; he said it. People
are now going to listen. And the reaction was, "What is wrong
with this guy? He should realize that if you're going to stand
up for public office, this comes with the territory. You have
to put up with that kind of attack."
MT: There's also an overemphasis on sensationalism-the
more sensational the better.
DT: Yes, that's very true.
The aspect of it that I focus on here is the assumption that only
conflict is dramatic, and so to get readers for your articles
you have a headline with a war metaphor-that's going to be most
interesting to people. And what I try to argue here is, there
are other kinds of drama. I was listening to a debate on the radio,
and at the end of it the moderator asked the two debaters, "What
did you hear tonight from the other person that made you change
your mind?" And the audience burst into applause. They wanted
that drama of change. But they didn't get it; both people said
nothing. That's the way we set it up in a debate-you don't yield
anything to the other side, because you want to win the debate.
MT: And one usually doesn't listen in
DT: Yes, yes. And this is
partly the metaphor of argument that I'm using. I point out, when
you have an argument with a partner that you're in love with,
and you're really angry, you don't listen to what the other person
is saying. You're not trying to understand what they're getting
at. You're listening for a point that you can jump on so you can
win the argument. So when they make points that you know have
some truth to it, you put those aside, and you wait for the ones
that you know are outrageous. That's where you leap. Well, maybe
we can't avoid that in our personal arguments-we should try-but
in our public lives, is this the way we're going to solve problems?
I don't think so.
MT: You quoted John Dewey: "Democracy
begins in conversation." It's a great quote. Why do you think
DT: What he had in mind was
that people have to be talking about the issues in their private
lives, face-to-face, one-on-one, in order to be informed and participate
in a democracy. When I quote that, I add to it that I fear it's
getting derailed in rancorous argument. And again, it's not that
I think people should not argue-yes, we should be arguing constructively
about the true issues. But when we turn everything into a rancorous,
polarized debate, then we make it harder to solve problems.
MT: Also, there's a duality-it's either
this view or it's that view. The message that is there are only
DT: Yes. And then people
end up thinking that there is obviously no solution to the problem
because the two sides are so polarized. But the only reason we
think they're so polarized is because we've allowed those extremes
to define the debate. And when we polarize the issues, we polarize
people. That's what I think is important in all of this-what it
does to the human spirit, to the people that are hearers and receivers
of this kind of discourse.
MT: It's quite similar to the problems
with our adversarial system of law. If we force people into enemy
positions, and force them to act like enemies, they continue feeling
that animosity long after the lawyers have gone on to the next
DT: Let me tell you my personal
experience with this. This was very instructive to me. For the
book Talking from Nine to Five, I worked with corporations. I
spent time observing; I interviewed people, got to know everybody
at the companies where I worked, and had individuals at those
companies carry tape recorders, record their own conversations
and then give me those tapes. I analyzed them and used examples
for the book.
With many of the companies I worked
with, we had a simple agreement that I would show them anything
I planned to use based on their company. If they weren't happy
with it, I'd either cut it out or change it in a way that they
felt comfortable with it. With other companies, we came to this
same kind of verbal agreement, and then they said, "That's
fine, we're set to go; we'll just have our lawyers write up a
contract." In no company where it was handed over to lawyers
were we able to come to an agreement! They had a lawyer, so I
had to get a lawyer. The lawyers then began going back and forth,
projecting everything we could do to destroy each other.
One company stands out in my mind,
because eight months later-after we started, and everything was
ready to go-we had to give up. It broke down over these two things:
Their lawyer was demanding the right to veto my entire book. I
could write the whole book; there could be one example they didn't
like, and they could forbid me to publish the book. I couldn't
agree to that. And my lawyer was demanding the right to use those
videotapes any way I wanted. So, for example, if "20/20"
did a segment on the book, I could have put up their company,
exposed them to lawsuits, embarrassed them, let out trade secrets.
But I had no interest in doing that.
Now, colleagues of mine who are
attorneys say well, that's just bad lawyering. The lawyers should
not have asked for things that you didn't want. That may or may
not be the case. But they were doing an extreme form of what their
job trains them to do, that is, to demand everything you can for
your client and expect the other party to do the worst and protect
your client from it. It was very instructive about the legal system
to have that experience.
MT: One of the things that permeates your
book, The Argument Culture, is that this culture of critique,
sensationalism and dichotomies creates an atmosphere of defensiveness
and fear, and that's not very good for our society.
DT: Absolutely. And not good
for the individual human spirit. An atmosphere of animosity spreads
like a fever when there's an ethic of aggression by which, every
place you turn, you feel people being sneered at. So much of journalism
now has this assumption that it should have an edge, it should
have attitude. Now, in the past, attitude could be any kind of
attitude, but now attitude means an aggressive, hostile attitude.
It creates a feeling where everyone
feels threatened and under siege, that whatever you do is going
to be interpreted in the worst possible light. It creates a disconnect
between our leaders and ourselves. We are not allowed to think
of our leaders as our leaders, even briefly. When FDR held his
fireside chats, they were not immediately followed by an opposition
response. For a short time you were able to think, this is our
president; let's hear what he has to say. We now are not allowed
to hear what our president has to say. The idea that there is
always an opposition response sets up a cynicism about our public
figures, and breaks down that sense of connection.
MT: Deborah, do we have a way out of this
incredible situation we find ourselves in?
DT: I am sometimes accused
of being too optimistic, but in each of the institutions that
I mentioned there are movements from within to change things.
Journalists are questioning their ethic of attack; the move within
law to alternative dispute resolution is growing; the field of
mediation is the fastest-growing sub-field of law; we read recently
that congresspeople are going off on retreats so they can learn
to get along better. So there's definitely awareness. In academia,
I don't see it yet, but I do see some movements in all these fields.
This article has been excerpted from New Dimensions
"Stop Arguing and Start Talking" with Deborah Tannen.