THE ARGUMENT CULTURE
March 27, 1998
David Gergen, editor-at-large of U.S. News & World Report, engages Deborah Tannen, author of The Argument Culture: Moving from Dialogue to Debate, in a discussion about the way we approach problems.
DAVID GERGEN: Deborah, the argument culture, what is it?
DEBORAH TANNEN, Author, "The Argument Culture:" It's our tendency to approach every problem as if it were a fight between two sides. We see it in headlines that are always using metaphors for war. We see it in our public conversations, which are always debates, get the most polarized extremes, put them on, let them slug it out. And we see it in an attack culture where journalists, intellectuals of all sorts think unless you're attacking and criticizing, you're not really thinking. It's a general atmosphere of animosity and contention that has taken over our public discourse.
DAVID GERGEN: Do you think that's changed over the last few years?
DEBORAH TANNEN: It has gotten worse. We have--this goes back really to Aristotle, the idea that opposition is the best way to think about anything. But it has certainly gotten worse, where we feel that only debate is acceptable as a form of discourse, that only war metaphors work; otherwise, everybody will be bored and go away. Every news story is about conflict. There's a fear that the audiences will be lost, and we see this as well in politics. We have a two-party system. We always have had that, and that's been one of our strengths. But what people referred to as gridlock, now we have a campaign that goes on forever, so the people not only attack each other during the campaign season but even during what should be a season of governing. We find the parties just trying to do what they can to oppose the other party, to make sure that they won't win in the next election. We have some politicians who would rather prevent anything from getting done than have something good get done and have the other party get credit for it. So that's they way it's gotten worse.
DAVID GERGEN: You write that it also occurs in the academy.
DEBORAH TANNEN: Well, I think often the seeds of it can be found our classrooms, where a teacher will introduce an article or an idea and rather than asking students to explore the idea to find what's good and useful in it will only ask how can we attack it, setting up debates where people learn not to listen to each other because they're so busy trying to win the debate.
DAVID GERGEN: The two wings of this, as I hear you talk, and as you write, one is the tendency to frame everything as an either/or, and the other is the attack culture. Let's talk a little bit about the either/or. You see that on television, in particular, the desire if you've got one person representing one point of view, you always want somebody representing the opposite point of view.
DEBORAH TANNEN: Yes. Now, sometimes this can be great, and journalists are very fair in wanting to be balanced and show both sides. But sometimes there aren't two sides. Sometimes there are more; sometimes there are less.
DAVID GERGEN: Exactly.
DEBORAH TANNEN: Holocaust denial has had far more success in the United States than any other country. In our eagerness to show both sides, sometimes that means giving a forum to people who claim that the Holocaust never happened. A woman broke a book discussing their tactics--the Holocaust denier's tactics--and she was invited on television if she would also allow them to invite deniers and debate them. She said, but there's nothing to debate; this is history; it's fact. And she was told, don't you think the audience has a right to hear the other side. So often we give a platform to marginalized or even totally discredited views in our eagerness to show the other side. This also is why global warming everywhere in the world is accepted as a problem, and the question is: How do we approach it? Just the other day I mentioned global warming to a taxi driver, and he said, "Do you believe that? There's no such thing." Only in the United States have we given a lot of air time to just a few discredited scientists who say this isn't a problem, just so that we can show the other side.
DAVID GERGEN: So you think either the middle gets left out of the conversation sometimes, which is more complex, or the mainstream is not identified as such?
DEBORAH TANNEN: Most people often find themselves, their own opinions, somewhere in the middle, and even if we say the middle, we're talking as if it were polarized. It's a crystal with many sides. A talk show will quite typically invite two guests, one pro, one con, one Democrat, one Republican, one left, one right. Sometimes that's right. Some topics will best be approached that way. Sometimes it doesn't fall into two neat sides. We should have three guests, four guests, five guests, or, in some cases, only one, and allow them to really develop an idea, and have another one another day to develop the idea from another point of view. Sometimes when you have two, neither one gets their ideas out because they're just shouting each other down. And I've seen this myself--my own, the book that I wrote --"You Just Don't Understand"--is about communication between women and men, and the approach that I took was, let's understand each other's styles so that we can get along better. And I can't tell you how often I was put in a framework of the war between the sexes or, as people would say, we're going to have you on so we want a man to have the other side.
DAVID GERGEN: Robert Bly, one of your examples.
DEBORAH TANNEN: This was very funny, yes. I had a public conversation with Robert Bly in which we talked about--it was--we actually billed it as reconciliation between the sexes, but there was an assumption that he represents the men's movement, I'm female, so I should be opposed to him, and we should have a fight. When we didn't, many of the people who had come to cover it didn't write about it at all. And some actually wrote about what we would have done if we had fought. One writer said, gee, he would have hit her over the head with his bazooki, but he didn't. So it was kind of boring.
DAVID GERGEN: How does one break out of this? How do we change a culture that--in which the commercial--there's a commercial interest here in trying to be provocative, if you--you're running--many of the news shows feel unless they're provocative, unless they sort of grab you by the throat, you know, it's sort of like the same thing that happens to the local news, if it bleeds, it leads, and here you're saying, you know, if there's an argument, it makes--it gets audience. How do you break out of that?
DEBORAH TANNEN: In the long run readers are becoming disenchanted. Readership, all consumership of news is down. When people realize that in the long run you may be turning off the audiences more, even though they will look temporarily--in the end they turn away, we really need to develop other metaphors and not talk about two sides, but talk about all sides. The most dangerous effect of this is to the human spirit. It has a corrosive effect on us, to be constantly surrounded by this unrelenting contention. And people do respond when you give them a more--a fuller view, because, after all, this is only one view if we approach everything as a debate. There's a show--a radio show on the line which has a feature "Common Ground." You invite people who have opposing views but you specifically ask them to try to find common ground. When there is a debate and people are asked, how have you influenced each other, the audience responds very well to that. People do not like to see everyone at loggerheads. It's depressing. It makes me feel hopeless. If people are able to see people actually listening to each other and changing their view, that's drama. It's the drama of changing your view. It's the drama of a new solution. And I think people will respond to that.
DAVID GERGEN: Isn't that really part of the answer, though, is the way--what people turn off it versus what they turn on? I mean, because the marketplace will respond to viewers and to listeners or to readers.
DEBORAH TANNEN: But I believe we have to look at the short-term and the long-term. Yes, you know, if you're walking down the street and you hear a fight, you stop and you look. You want to see what's happening. But then you turn away. It's not an enduring interest. If you overhear a conversation where you learn something, that's something you'll remember. Oprah has changed to a more positive, less confrontational format, and she's still the highest rated afternoon show. So I think readers will respond, and we also have to think about our own lives too. We can make changes there. When you feel yourself saying, well, what's the other side, you can ask yourself, maybe, are there more than two sides. When you feel yourself demonizing the people that you disagree with, you can ask, is there a way I can understand their point of view, can I learn something from this, not always play this doubting game, but sometimes ask yourself, what can I learn from the other person, even though I don't agree with them?
DAVID GERGEN: Deborah Tannen, thank you for helping us understand better.
DEBORAH TANNEN: Thank you.