We Do Understand

Deborah Tannen wants to play overprotective mother to us all.

The Argument Culture: Moving From Debate to Dialogue
By Deborah Tannen
Random House; 346 pages; $25

“This is not another book about civility,” Deborah Tannen promises in the first sentence of The Argument Culture. “Civility,” she explains, suggests a “veneer of politeness spread thin over human relations like a layer of marmalade over toast.” Instead, Tannen has written something less: a book about other books about civility. Quoting from Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz, political scientist Larry Sabato, and others who have studied the rise of belligerence in politics, journalism, and law, Tannen spreads their insights thin over all human relations, painting a general theory of discord. The whole is less perceptive than its parts and more pernicious.

In her previous books–That’s Not What I Meant! (1986), You Just Don’t Understand (1990), and Talking From 9 to 5 (1994)–Tannen carved out a niche as the nation’s pre-eminent intergender translator and couples counselor. A professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, she transformed the comparative study of male and female conversational patterns from a linguistic subdiscipline into a self-help movement. Until recently, though, Tannen confined her analysis to conversations among dysfunctional individuals. (For an illustration, click.) But in The Argument Culture, she takes her movement one step further, peddling the elixir of mutual understanding as a remedy for the whole damned dysfunctional country. This is necessary, she argues, because “contentious public discourse” not only poisons the political atmosphere, it also risks infecting our most intimate relationships.

Tannen, like some grandmotherly creature from an Aesop fable, admonishes us to recognize what is good in the work of others, and it is only fair to extend her the same courtesy. Here’s what’s worth gleaning from her book:

Don’t just quarrel; listen and learn.

Don’t nit-pick other people’s ideas; build your own.

Don’t argue for the sake of arguing.

Truth and courage often lie in the middle, not the extremes.

Many issues are multisided.

Focus on the substance of debates, not on strategy, theater, or the opponents’ personal flaws.

Don’t fight over small issues.

Don’t obstruct good ideas just so you can win.

If you portray everything as a scandal, no one will care when something really is scandalous.

All this is sage advice–for couples, for families, for bosses and employees, maybe even for book reviewers. But when she applies her precepts to our great national conversation, Tannen gets confused. She conflates belligerence, divisiveness, polarization, titillation, jealousy, incivility, aloofness, ruthlessness, cruelty, savagery, contempt, glibness, cynicism, anomie, partisanship, obstructionism, and gridlock. She makes culprits out of answering machines, electronic mail, campaign money, malpractice litigation, HMOs, corporate takeovers, and the demise of house calls by the family doctor.

“When there is a need to make others wrong,” Tannen argues, “the temptation is great to oversimplify” and to “seize upon the weakest examples, ignore facts that support your opponent’s views, and focus only on those that support yours.” In her need to make the “argument culture” wrong, she succumbs to these temptations. She blames the mainstream press, not just the paparazzi, for torturing Princess Diana and driving Adm. Mike Boorda to suicide. She compares to the propaganda of “totalitarian countries” (because falsehoods are spread) and to the dehumanization involved in “ethnically motivated assaults” (because reporters hound politicians). She blames communications technology for obscene and threatening phone calls made by former university President Richard Berendzen and former Judge Sol Wachtler.

Tannen’s main mistake is failing to appreciate the difference between two distinct social spheres: the sphere of snuggle and the sphere of struggle. Some people–say, your spouse or your kids–you should snuggle with. Others–say, Saddam Hussein–you shouldn’t. Tannen’s antagonism toward antagonism makes sense in the former case but not in the latter. Among her illustrations of belligerence are William Safire’s “kick ‘em when they’re up” philosophy of journalism and the media’s use of war metaphors to describe Alan Greenspan’s policies against inflation. To which one might sensibly reply: Good for Greenspan and Safire–and for us. The Federal Reserve’s war on inflation and the press corps’ scrutiny of powerful people safeguard the country. Some things are worth fighting for, and some things are worth fighting.

Vigilance and combat are particularly essential to law enforcement and foreign policy, which must deal with thugs and tyrants, not thoughtless husbands. Tannen laments that cops and soldiers have been “trained to overcome their resistance to kill” by trying “not to think of their opponents as human beings.” She neglects to mention that our safety depends on the ability of these officers to kill their adversaries. Comparing Vietnam to World War II, Tannen focuses strictly on the soldiers’ social experience. In World War II, she observes, they trained, served, and went home together. “Vietnam, in contrast, was a ‘lonely war’ of individuals assigned to constantly shifting units for year-long tours of duty.” She ignores the more important difference: In World War II, they were fighting Hitler.

T annen doesn’t trust in the power of good argumentation to keep society honest, much less correct itself, because she rather shockingly insists “” that people can distinguish lies from the truth. Nor does she trust our competence to manage unfettered communication: “E-mail makes it too easy to forward messages, too easy to reply before your temper cools, too easy to broadcast messages to large numbers of people without thinking about how every sentence will strike every recipient.” Lexis-Nexis is an equally unwelcome troublemaker: “Technology also exacerbates the culture of critique by making it much easier for politicians or journalists to ferret out inconsistencies in a public person’s statements over time.”

Given this oddly paternalistic (or maternalistic) diagnosis, it’s not surprising that Tannen should wish to cover our ears, filtering out strife, deception, and debate. She assures us that all reasonable people can agree that disseminating birth control and sex education is the best way to reduce the abortion rate; that stiff sentences for small drug offenses don’t reduce drug abuse; that global warming is producing “disastrous consequences.” Partial-birth abortion is “surely not” a “very important” issue, and Congress should not have let the Republican “politics of obstruction” defeat President Clinton’s health care proposal in 1994, given the “broad bipartisan and public consensus that it was desperately needed.” The “view of government as the enemy” isn’t worth debating; it’s just “another troubling aspect of the argument culture.” Indeed, Tannen embraces a colleague’s claim that “right-wing talk radio” deploys phrases “similar to verbal manipulations employed by propagandists in the Nazi era.”

Tannen finds it particularly unseemly that reporters and independent counsels treat the nation’s ultimate father figure with such irreverence. She complains that Clinton’s weekly radio address “is followed immediately by a Republican response,” which “weakens the public’s ability to see leaders as leaders.” A reporter’s skeptical question to Clinton “broke the spell” of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s remarks upon being nominated to the Supreme Court, thereby injuring citizens’ “sense of connection” to “our judicial system.” The investigation of former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy was excessive, the campaign against former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders was “cruelly unfair,” and the Whitewater investigation–led by “a prominent Republican known for his animosity toward the president”–is, in the words of Arkansas journalist Gene Lyons, “the result of the nastiest and most successful political ‘dirty tricks’ campaign in recent American history.” Is Tannen a Clinton apologist? She rules that criticism out of bounds. “The very fact that defending our nation’s elected leader makes one suspect–an ‘apologist’–is in itself evidence of the culture of critique,” she writes.

The First Amendment, in Tannen’s view, has often become “a pretext to justify the airing of just those views that make for the most entertaining fights.” As an alternative, she offers Asian authoritarianism: “Disputation was rejected in ancient China as ‘incompatible with the decorum and harmony cultivated by the true sage.’ ” Similarly, “the minimal human unit in Japan is not the individual but the group.” Instead of the American practice of having two guests debate policy questions on TV news programs, she suggests a Japanese format, which “typically features a single guest.” (Click to learn how she puts this into practice.)

Tannen even wants to protect us from the possibility of unpleasant confrontations in the courtroom. “The purpose of most cross-examinations” is “not to establish facts but to discredit the witness,” she asserts, as though the two objectives were unrelated. Thus, “the adversary system … is inhumane to the victims of cross-examination.” She simply assumes the very thing the trial is supposed to prove and what cross-examination might disprove (if this is, in fact, the point of the trial): that the witness is a victim. Conversely, she assumes that the defendant cannot be a victim. While objecting to cross-examination of alleged rape victims because “it is easy to distort events so that a rape can appear to be consensual sex,” she ignores the reverse implication–that it is easy to make consensual sex look like rape. She complains that when Anita Hill accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment, “Framing these hearings as a two-sides dispute between Hill and Thomas allowed the senators to focus their investigation on cross-examining Hill rather than seeking other sorts of evidence.” Did the dispute not have two sides? Should Hill not have been cross-examined?

Instead of the American system, Tannen proposes consideration of the French and German systems. Under French law, after Princess Diana’s death:

The photographers were held for two days without charges being filed and without being allowed to confer with lawyers. … The judges do most of the questioning; though lawyers can also ask questions, they cannot cross-examine witnesses. Guilt … need not be established ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ but simply by … the judge’s intimate belief, or deeply held sense, of what happened.

Likewise, Tannen recalls the trial of a Canadian man who had denied the Holocaust. The defendant’s lawyer interrogated concentration camp survivors, asking whether they had seen their parents gassed. The adversarial system permitted such questions to be asked and answered–admittedly a vexatious experience for the survivors but one that does entail an airing of the facts of the Holocaust. Tannen, however, treats it only as a display of the “cruelty of cross-examination.” She raises no objection to the Canadian hate-speech ban under which the defendant was prosecuted. Would Tannen argue that the United States should adopt such a law, along with, say, a ban on the cross-examination of accusers? If so, she’d be wrong. But hey, so far, it’s still a free country.

If you missed the links within the review, click to read: 1) an illustration of; 2) Tannen’s that American journalism is just like propaganda from totalitarian regimes, plus William Saletan’s disclosure that “several of these propagandists now infest Slate“; 3) the for her contention that there is no evidence that people can distinguish lies from truth; 4) and an example of how Tannen from a one-guest format on TV and radio talk shows.