The Argument Culture

Peter Hulm

Linguist Deborah Tannen was struck by the adversarial culture of the United States when travelling around to promote her book on better male-female communication. On a talk show she was set up against a "professional provocateur" who apologized beforehand for the way he was going to treat her. It set her thinking about how to change the belligerent public ways we argue and debate.

How was Hillary Clinton provoked into speaking dismissively of "some little woman standing by my man"? How did this woman who had been in politics most of her life find herself telling a journalist on nationwide television: "I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas"?

Political life remains full of media minefields. So itís worth looking at the pressures that can make even seasoned pols fail to see where their mouths are taking them. The Tammy Wynette reference came from a TV appearance by the Clintons on 60 Minutes. The interviewer suggested their decision to remain married was an "arrangement". Both protested. President Clinton said: "Itís not an arrangement. Itís a marriage." Mrs Clinton thought she was saying she had made a conscious choice out of love and respect, notes Tannen.

The other soundbite during the 1972 election campaign. It followed an accusation by competing candidate Jerry Brown that Mrs Clinton had exploited her marriage when Mr Clinton was governor of Arkansas. Mrs C used Governor C to attract state business to the law firm where she was a partner, Brown said (an accusation which was later shown to be baseless).

Mrs Clinton confessed a personal struggle to combine work and family. Reporters pressed her on how she could have avoided an appearance of conflict. The only way, she suggested, was not to have her own career at all. "I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas. But what I decided to do was fulfil my profession which I entered before my husband was in public life."

Ready-made wars

Deborah Tannen, Professor of Linguistics at Georgetown University in Washington D.C., sees how the comments that made the news programmes fit into a popular stereotype : "a ready-made war ó women who stay at home versus women at work."

Yet what bothers her most is the context in which the questions were asked: "Surely the ironic edge in both cases came from being asked hurtful questions. [...] The experience of trying to be honest and having a chance remark yanked out of context to become a bludgeon [...] no doubt explains the later reluctance of the Clintons ó and other public figures ó to talk freely to the press."

Even worse, at this time the polls found 28 percent of registered voters holding a favourable opinion of Mrs Clinton, as against 14 percent who did not. "Yet far fewer column inches were devoted to exploring the basis for the 28 percent than for the 14 percent."

Tannen, a serious researcher as well as popularizer of the linguistic and behavioural differences between men and women, says we must change the way people discuss issues and debate them publicly, particularly in the U.S. The argument culture, which is available in differing British and U.S. editions, sets out her latest thoughts and recommendations for building a more forgiving and sensitive pattern of behaviour into all aspects of social life, particularly in media.

She has received what some would consider the ultimate accolade for fashionable theoreticians ó an invitation to the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, a kind of crash course in the latest social ideas for 1500 top executives.

Her suggestions offer a number of pointers for humanitarian organizations and the UN on how to deal with the press ó and for media professionals in breaking out of a belligerent mind-set.

Culture of critique

The Argument Culture reviews the suicide of U.S. admiral Jeremy "Mike" Boorda on 16 May 1996. He was just about to be interviewed by a Newsweek journalist and retired Army colonel over whether he had the right to wear a small "V" for "Valor", attached to a medal.

Boorda, the highest ranking admiral in the U.S. Navy, had been awarded the medal, and there was no question that Boorda had earned his "V" if this represented an award for heroism in a combat mission in general.

The question was whether it was limited to Navy personnel who had been directly fired on, and Boordaís ship had not. The Navy itself had changed its regulations over time and "at least one officer did receive explicit authorization to wear the ĎVí for participation in the same manoeuvre for which Admiral Boorda received the medal," Tannen says. "In any case, the admiral had taken the ĎVí off a year earlier, as soon as he learned that questions had been raised about it."

It was even found one year later that the Newsweek colonel had included in his resumť two decorations he had not earned. "Medal inflation," she points out,"is a common phenomenon, as much discussed in the military as grade inflation is in academic circles."

What interests Tannen is why this small incident was a major story and led to the suicide.

She sees it as the product of a culture of critique which led to an onslaught of criticism, none of it malicious.

Boordaís suicide note, addressed to his sailors, said: "I donít expect any reporters to believe I could make an honest mistake."

A couple of years earlier, retired admiral Bobby Ray Inman withdrew his nomination as secretary of defence, reporting: "Iíd wake up thinking about the stories, the hostile stories, not all the friendly ones."

Yet newspapers remember his nomination as being "unusually well received in Washington" (The New York Times). The journalistic stance may be purely ritual but it is taken seriously, she notes.

Not that Tannen blames journalists alone for this confrontational culture: "There is a web of influence among journalists, politicians, business leaders, and other professionals and citizens." Academia, she observes, is full of animosity. Reputations are made by knocking down the ideas of others, often anonymously through the review system, and graduate school is boot camp for these thought warriors.

Conflict-oriented press

Another example: the failed Clinton health plan. Journalists, with their inclination to emphasize conflict, did not help people understand the plan or its alternatives.

"When opponents of change predicted dire and outlandish consequences, [from] both the Clintonsí plan and [ later] the Gingrich-led plan to restructure Medicare, the press reported the accusations but did not examine and expose them as false."

When the Wall Street Journal asked a focus group for their opinions of the Clinton plan, they vehemently opposed it. "When asked what they would like in a health care plan, what they described were the elements of the Clinton plan."

Both sides of Congress were apparently close to agreement, but the Clinton Administration wanted it to be a Democratic achievement, while the Republicans feared their opponents would be unbeatable if they succeeded. So nothing went through.

However, Tannen is no media-basher blaming TVís influence on politics for the cynicism of modern public life. She traces the adversarial tradition of educational institutions to the ancient Greeks and their all-male system.

She contrasts this system with the Chinese approach, which rejected public disputation as "incompatible with the decorum and harmony cultivated by the true sage." In both China and India, the aim was to enlighten an inquirer not to overwhelm an opponent. Tannen does not pretend to be knowledgeable in this area, but cites Walter Ong and Robert T. Oliver for her generalizations here.

Broadening her targets, she quotes a senior attorney who declared "litigation is war" to investigate the strange byways into which the adverserial legal system can lead you.

"Requiring people to behave like enemies can stir up animosity that remains long after the case has been settled or tried," she remarks. The cumulative impact is to make confrontation seem natural.

Many cultures, she points out, see apology as a fundamental part of the reconciliation process, even of criminal trials. Yet in most Western cultures apologies are seen as a sign of weakness.

Listening to other cultures

So far, her examination may not seem to offer much to humanitarian organizations concerned to learn how to promote reconciliation and dispute settlement more effectively. The main thrust of her book, though, comes in the final third, when Tannen recommends listening to other cultures and going beyond dualism. It remains to be seen whether the UN's 'Dialogue between Civilizations' campaign takes her ideas on board.

Even Americans can find the disputatious nature of private conversation in European homes off-putting, or sometimes frightening. "People in many cultures feel that arguing is a sign of closeness," she acknowledges. "In France, as in many other countries, agreement is deemed boring; to keep things interesting, you have to disagree ó preferably with great animation."

Germans, too, tend to assume that intelligence and knowledge should be displayed through argumentation and forceful analysis of othersí arguments. "This behaviour results in American studentsí impressions that German students are self-aggrandizing, pigheaded, given to facile right/wrong dichotomies, and generally inclined to put people on the defensive and humiliate them publicly. Conversely, Americansí refusal to engage in arguments in this way leads Germans to conclude that American students are superficial, uncommitted, ignorant, and unwilling (or, more likely, unable) to take a stand."

In Japan, she points out, criticism will not be expressed directly, and Japanese are not expected to overpraise. As a result, they become very skillful at picking up on indirect criticism.

A Japanese former prime minister in 1992 was accused of getting the help of organized crime to stop a public harassment campaign by another political party which had depicted him as "a great leader with integrity and honour matched by no other." She likewise notes that some researchers believe that the parliamentary system in the Asian context can lead to no-holds-barred confrontation because they have no tradition of direct expression of political disagreement.

Keep rituals

She cautions against trying to suppress ritual occasions for people to express their frustrations, such as as "reviling the street" in traditional Chinese villages, Papua New Guinea or Nigeria.

We should not impose our cultural stereotypes on other people, she suggests ó for example, treating others as hypocritical for keeping to their old religion when they adopt another.

"Perhaps the most fundamental is the Western assumption that the individual self is in ongoing opposition to society," she adds. Such presumptions are alien to most Asians and Africans, she notes. An anthropologist of Japanese culture has described it as a system of "victors without vanquished," which has helped the country avoid disastrous ethnic and religious strife, she observes.

But one of the most damaging presumptions of Western, particularly U.S. culture, is that "disputes should be settled [...] without outside interference," Tannen says. Even psychologists share this view, treating independence from others as maturity.

But many cultures have formally ritualized ways of involving others or have developed informal systems to involve the community in settling disputes. "We cannot simply adopt the rituals of another culture, but thinking about them can give us pause and perhaps even ideas for devising our own new ways to manage conflict," she suggests.

Some cultures encouraged ritualized fighting: she contrasts Balinese cockfights in a society that obsessively avoids confrontation compared to Western sports events where players and spectators noisily challenge umpires and referees.

In Bali, bettting on a cock is "a requisite public display of support for and alliance with the man whose cock you bet on." She notes the social role of (officially denied) sheep rustling on the Greek island of Crete to forge alliances and make marriages (to bring potentially violent feuds to an end). Even labour strikes can act as a ritual in Japan while management and unions reach an agreement behind the scenes.

Rules for disagreement

Tannen quotes with approval Amitai Etzioni, a communitarian sociologist who has worked to set out new rules that make it clear that people whose ideas conflict are still part of the same community. These rules include:

  • Donít demonize those with whom you disagree.
  • Donít affront their deepest moral commitments.
  • Talk less of rights, which are non-negotiable, and more of needs, wants and interests.
  • Leave some issues out.
  • Engage in a dialogue of convictions: donít be so reasonable and conciliatory that you lose touch with a core of belief you feel passionately about.

Suggestions for media

Her suggestions for the media include:

  • Bring in a third person to a debate, one who can offer some perspective on the issues being contested.
  • Prefer rather than reject commentators who say they cannot prefer one side or another.
  • In information shows include at least one guest who could give some indepth exploration of a topic.
  • Programme producers should re-examine the assumption that audiences always prefer a fight.

The King

Academics who force their views into one camp or another go wrong by asserting that only one framework can apply. "Time spent attacking an opponent or defending against attacks," she points out, "is not spent doing something else ó like original research. [...] In moving away from a narrow view of debate, we need not give up conflict and criticism altogether. Quite the contrary, we can develop more varied ó and more constructive ó ways of expressing opposition and negotiating disagreement."

She has said some media professionals are already making efforts to get out of the oppositional strait-jacket. Larry King is a successful interviewer who sedulously avoids confrontational journalism, and gets people on his talk show who would never appear elsewhere.

Though some guests on King do try to shout each other down, thereís usually a third person to offer another perspective.

U.S. national public radio, often available in Europe as America One, makes a valiant effort to adopt a non-adversarial style and conduct extensive rather than sound-bite size interviews.

BBC World Service usually plays fair. Good PR staff can tell the directors of their organizations who is a serious journalist, who not ó and it may have nothing to do with circulation, audience or showbiz style of the programme.

Lessons for humanitarians

Humanitarian organizations can learn to say no to the pugnacious shows, no matter how big the audience promised. After all, what does it say about viewers if they switch on for a stand-up ding-dong? You can ask who else is going to be interviewed or put on the show with you, and refused to be dragged into a confrontation scene. People in the public eye regularly make such demands of the programmes where they are due to appear, and back out if they donít like the arrangement. News producers and editors are used to dealing with such questions, so donít believe them if they try to tell you it doesnít happen on their show.

How can you judge whether you are being set up? One sure sign is when the journalistís questions seem to be heading off in a direction that seems to you irrelevant to the main issues, or the ones you fee it is fair for you to discuss.

What Tannen doesnít take into account is that President Clinton is a past-master at tackling such challenges and turning them to his advantage. He even mimicked talk-show hosts in his TV "town meetings" by walking around and questioning members of the audience.

And political commentators have noted how U.S. (and European) politicians today are a much more telegenic lot than 30 years ago and are almost indistinguishable from newscasters, investigative journalists and talk show hosts in their grooming and behaviour.

Humanitarian organizations, too, have likewise started putting their telegenic spokespeople in front of the cameras, though their role models tend to be the war correspondent rather than Larry King: itís almost a shock to see Christiane Amanpour interview someone (man or woman) in a suit.

Dealing with dopes

Of course, the organizationís directors can learn how to pitch in with confrontational shows. Not many of them do: itís plainly too bruising to the ego for many of them to go back to school.

And Iím not sure that the effortís worth it. I remember hearing a woman from UNHCR in the US spending almost all of a half-hour radio interview trying to correct the dopey assumptions of the journalist who had the mike. You can bet it changed hardly anyoneís mind. And most of what remains from these debates seems to be the idea that there was some controversy over the issue (even if there isnít, as in the Whitewater story).

David Riesman ó he of The Lonely Crowd ó refused an invitation to debate someone publicly in the 1950s because he agreed with the other person more than he disagreed. He also based his writing career as a sociologist on William Blakeís maxim: "When I tell the Truth, it is not for the sake of Convincing those who do not know it, but for the sake of defending those that do."

Deborah Tannen (1998) The Argument Culture. Random House: 352 pp., $25. (UK) Virago Press £16.99. Interestingly the subtitle in the US was Moving From Debate to Dialogue and in the UK Changing the Way We Argue and Debate.


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