The Argument Culture
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."
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
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
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
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."
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
Another example: the failed Clinton health plan. Journalists, with their inclination to emphasize conflict, did
not help people understand the plan or its alternatives.
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
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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
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.
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
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
- 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.
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
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
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."
(1998) The Argument Culture. Random House: 352 pp., $25.
(UK) Virago Press £16.99. Interestingly the subtitle in the US
From Debate to Dialogue
and in the UK Changing the Way We Argue and Debate.
for this issue